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Satellite view of wildfires erupting in British Columbia on June 30, 2021. The tallest clouds, indicative of fire-generated thunderstorms, are brighter, while satellite-detected wildfire heat signatures glow at the surface. Photo: CIRA/RAMMB

A record-shattering heat wave has triggered a spate of massive wildfires across British Columbia and the U.S. West, with one blaze roaring through parts of Lytton, Canada, on Wednesday night. The fire occurred just a day after the town set a national high temperature record of 121°F.

Why it matters: The unprecedented heat is leading to other deadly threats as residents hastily evacuate areas in the path of quickly-advancing flames, including deteriorating air quality.

  • Climate change plays a key role in heightening the severity of both heat waves and wildfires.

Driving the news: The long-lasting heat wave has toppled dozens of all-time temperature records across the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia — the result of an unusually powerful area of high pressure, colloquially known as a "heat dome," sitting over the region and forcing air to stagnate.

  • The extreme heat, which climate scientists say would have been virtually impossible to achieve without human-caused global warming, helped dry out soils further in an area that was already unusually parched for this time of year, leading to dangerous wildfire conditions.

Zoom in: Based on news reports, satellite imagery and social media posts, most of Lytton, British Columbia, was seriously damaged when a wildfire erupted, quickly expanded in size and swept through the community late Wednesday and into Thursday.

  • Lytton, about 95 miles northeast of Vancouver, received international headlines when it set all-time national heat records on three straight days, culminating in the 121°F reading on Tuesday.
  • According to CBC News, about 1,000 people in and around Lytton were given a mandatory evacuation order at 6 p.m. local time Wednesday, but the fire moved swiftly across the community. People were evacuating while homes and businesses were burning.
  • "I noticed some white smoke at the south end of town and within 15 to 20 minutes, the whole town was engulfed in flame," mayor Jan Polderman told CBC British Columbia.
  • The frantic evacuation led to scenes reminiscent of the past few horrific fire seasons in California, with people fleeing past burning homes and cars on the side of the road.
  • Citing a local member of Parliament as well as Royal Canadian Mounted Police, CBC reported that at least 90% of Lytton had been damaged or destroyed.

Wildfires are also burning in Northern California, where drought and heat has left forests fire-prone far earlier in the fire season than usual. In fact, the entire western U.S. is mired in drought conditions, and the wildfire threat this season is so severe it was the subject of a White House summit on Wednesday.

Details: The heat wave is the worst on record to hit the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories. One location in the Northwest Territories reached a high temperature of 103°F on Wednesday, the hottest on record for any location above 60 degrees North.

  • More than a dozen large blazes erupted on Wednesday across British Columbia, northern California, and other parts of the West, touched off by erratic winds, high heat, and dry, combustible vegetation.
A tweet previously embedded here has been deleted or was tweeted from an account that has been suspended or deleted.

By the numbers: The death toll from the heat wave itself has risen into the hundreds in Canada alone, with dozens dead in the U.S. as well.

  • On Wednesday, British Columbia's chief coroner reported about 500 deaths so far, with a significant number believed to be related to the heat. About 60 heat-related deaths have been recorded in Oregon, as well.
  • The heat wave set all-time highs in Portland, Ore., at 116°F and Seattle, at 108°F, among other locations. Both Oregon and Washington may have tied or set all-time state records.
  • Excessive heat warnings remain in place in parts of the Northwest, and the heat continues in parts of Canada as well.

Go deeper: Pacific Northwest heat wave, Canada temperature record shock experts

Go deeper

Updated Sep 22, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on bold climate commitments

On Wednesday, September 22nd, Axios co-founder Mike Allen and energy reporter Ben Geman hosted a virtual conversation on the innovative approaches climate leaders are undertaking to reshape standards for sustainability initiatives in 2022 and beyond, featuring White House national climate adviser Gina McCarthy and Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp.

Gina McCarthy explained the Biden administration’s recent environmental priorities, the importance of mobilizing different communities to fight climate change, and how the White House is incentivizing private industries to reduce their emissions.   

  • On addressing extreme heat problems: "I think everybody’s beginning to understand as the President tours the sites of wildfires and flooding and other really big challenges like drought, there’s this silent killer for climate change that’s called excess heat, that really doesn’t get enough attention."
  • On cross-agency collaboration on climate change at a federal level: “It’s an exciting moment where people across the federal government are working together in ways they have never done before, not just to tackle wildfires and droughts and flooding and heat stress, but also to tackle the challenge of how we motivate our business sector and send them all the signals you would want us to send that shows that President Biden is committed to achieving net zero in 2050, and knows that this decade is a decisive decade.”

Fred Krupp highlighted how companies must be held accountable to pledges to reduce their emissions, how some corporations are breaking with lobby associations to become more vocal about climate change (and others are not), and how he believes debates surrounding the infrastructure bill will play out in the near future. 

  • On how corporate lobbying has fallen short: “Right now, we don’t see enough corporations lobbying on behalf of the climate sections of the reconciliation bill. This bill that’s pending in Congress is our once in a decade opportunity to get something done on climate.” 
  • On public support for the infrastructure bill: “I see an enormous amount of support in the American public for moving ahead with a sort of clean energy economy that are going to create tremendous numbers of jobs, clean the air, make people healthier.” 

Axios VP of Communications Yolanda Brignoni hosted a View from the Top segment with GE’s Chief Sustainability Officer Roger Martella, who discussed how GE is following through on their ESG goals by investing in sustainable energy technologies. 

  • “We create some of the most technically complex and critical technologies the world needs, and we’re focused today on innovating these technologies on a path to decarbonization.” 

Thank you GE for sponsoring this event.

Southwest drought is worst on record, NOAA finds

In a stark new report, a team of NOAA and independent researchers found the 2020-2021 drought across the Southwest is the worst in the instrumental record, which dates to 1895.

Why it matters: They also concluded that global warming is making it far more severe, primarily by increasing average temperatures, which boosts evaporation.

Air quality alerts issued as California fires threaten more sequoias

The Windy Fire blazes through the Long Meadow Grove of giant sequoia trees near the Trail of 100 Giants in Sequoia National Forest, near California Hot Springs, on Tuesday. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Two wildfires were threatening California's sequoia trees overnight — hours after authorities issued fresh evacuation orders and warnings, along with air quality alerts.

The big picture: Air quality alerts were issued Wednesday for the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley as smoke from the Windy and KNP Complex fires resulted in hazy, "ash-filled" skies from Fresno to Tulare, the Los Angeles Times notes.

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