Jul 13, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Sprawling wildfires scorch Western U.S. amid severe heat wave

A helicopter dropping water on the Sugar Fire near Doyle, California, on July 12.

A helicopter dropping water on the Sugar Fire near Doyle, Calif., on July 12. Photo: Neal Waters/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

More than 14,200 wildland firefighters have responded to 67 major fires primarily across the Western United States that have burned approximately 918,000 acres, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: The West is in the midst of a climate change-fueled megadrought and its third heatwave of the summer, both of which are contributing to substantial and mostly uncontained fires that have forced thousands of people to evacuate and claimed an undetermined number of homes, according to AP.

The Bootleg Fire, located 15 miles northwest of Beatty, Oregon, is the largest active wildfire in the country, burning at least 201,923 acres so far and threatening several homes. It was 0% contained as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

  • Beckwourth Complex is the largest active incident in California. The two large fires that make up the complex have burned 92,988 acres and were 46% contained as of Tuesday morning.
  • The River Fire near Yosemite National Park jumped to 9,500 acres on Tuesday, claiming at least eight structures and threatening 600 more, according to KTLA.

Our thought bubble, via Axios' Andrew Freedman: The West faces a long and potentially devastating wildfire season, with a severe drought locked in place and a series of extreme heat events leading to some of the most combustible conditions scientists have yet observed in some areas.

  • Human-caused climate change has made the heat events, including the Pacific Northwest's recent deadly heatwave, significantly more severe.
  • Separate from these heat events, studies also show global warming is amplifying the risks of large wildfires in parts of the West, with the typical peak of the season still about two months away.

The big picture: Since June 1, at least 67 weather stations have recorded temperatures that either tied or broke all-time heat records, according to the National Weather Service (NWS).

  • So far this year, around 33,953 wildfires have burned an estimated 2 million acres, according to the NIFC.

What to watch: The NWS said the heatwave will continue for much of the Western U.S. through Wednesday before slightly cooler temperatures arrive later this week.

Go deeper: Last month was the hottest June on record for the U.S.

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