Another Heatwave Hits the Pacific Northwest

Another Heatwave Hits the Pacific Northwest Portland

The Pacific Northwest has experienced a second scorching heatwave this summer, with temperatures climbing well above 90 degrees in a region where many residents still don't have air conditioning. Portland, where temperatures hit 98, is also approaching 50 rainless days.

This coupling of high temperatures and worsening drought conditions now covers nearly all of the region, and that heat and dryness has created a situation just one spark away from wildfire. On a national scale, this year's fires aren't far off from the 10-year average in sheer number of acres burned, but California is already outpacing its record-breaking wildfire season last year.

Why This Matters

The extreme heat is a result of human-induced climate change, and similar heat waves could be two to seven times more likely in the future, according to a recent study. Approximately 500 people in the region died of heat-related illnesses during the deadlier heatwave earlier this summer. On top of the intense heat, wildfires are dangerous even from afar, causing poor air quality that can drift hundreds and thousands of miles.

Worse still, utility companies are worried that another dangerous heatwave will threaten power grids.

Fires and Drought Challenge Utility Companies

The drought and fire conditions have also made it difficult for utility companies to keep the electricity grid working. Grid operators are angling for better sensors to understand factors like wind speed and dried vegetation levels, which would allow them to cut power on a line if needed to prevent sparking a fire. It’s an important consideration: Pacific Gas and Electric, California's largest utility, said its equipment may have been the spark for the Dixie Fire currently burning near the 2018's Camp Fire that PG&E also caused.

Another challenge facing power companies is a shrinking energy supply, due to the drought's devastating impact on hydropower capabilities. Just last week, California called on residents to reduce their energy use when demand was expected to be highest. Typically, too, California would import energy from neighboring states, but high-rates of consumption during the heatwave means there is little left for export. What is still being transported is threatened by wildfires, which could destroy transmission lines running between states.

"The exceptional fire weather this year and in recent years does not represent random bad luck," Jacob Bendix, a Syracuse University professor who specializes in the study of wildfire distribution, told the LA Times. "It is among the results of our adding carbon to the atmosphere -- results that were predictable, and indeed that have been predicted for decades."

PBS: 2021 could be one of the driest years in a millennium, and there's no relief in sight, May 29, 2021.