The West can’t catch a break. After a slight reprieve from this week’s extreme heat, which sparked raging wildfires that threatened electricity grids and lit up firenadoes in California, the region is preparing for its fourth scorching heat wave in just five weeks.
In a now-familiar series of events, a high-pressure system known as a heat dome will move into the region, forming a lid that traps hot air in the atmosphere. The high pressure will also lock in sunny skies, further reinforcing extreme heat.
Temperatures will begin their ascent over the weekend and peak on Monday, but it could remain freakishly hot for much longer in some places. While past heat waves have centered over California and the Pacific Northwest, this one will be a little further inland and straddle the U.S.-Canada border. An area from Idaho and Montana up to Alberta and Saskatchewan will see the most worst of it.
Though the dome will reach its peak strength on Monday, high temperatures could persist in some regions, especially in Western Canada. British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba could all see triple-digit heat throughout the entirety of next week.
At least 67 U.S. weather stations from Washington down through New Mexico have recorded their all-time hottest temperatures in 2021, the National Weather Service announced this week. With the renewed bout of heat, more records will be shattered in the coming days. Temperatures across a huge chunk of the area will be up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit (16.7 degrees Celsius) above average for mid-July.
Temperatures in parts of Idaho and Montana are forecast to set daily records and possibly all-time ones as well. The National Weather Service has issued an excessive heat watch for those states as well as Wyoming, where highs could get into the triple digits. (Environment Canada has also issued heat warnings for a number of locations north of the border as well.)
The town of Billings, located in the southern part of Montana, could see “dangerously hot conditions with temperatures climbing from near 100 degrees Fahrenheit [37.8 degrees Celsius] Saturday to 103 to 106 degrees Fahrenheit [39.4 to 41.1 degrees Celsius] by Monday.” The evenings won’t be particularly cool, either—temperatures could remain in the 70s. For a region used to cool nights, that could leave things uncomfortably hot and put those most at risk of heat-related illnesses in the danger zone.
Central parts of Montana are under a magenta warning on the NWS’ excessive heat watch scale. That’s the highest level of risk and indicates the “entire population” could be impacted due to “long duration heat, with little to no relief overnight.”
Sweltering heat could work as far south as Utah, which has already had a hellacious year of hot and dry weather. Salt Lake City, which averages five triple-digit days annually, has already seen already seen 15 this year. It’s expected to see its sixteenth on Sunday as temperatures reach 101 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 degrees Celsius), and they could stay above the 100-degree mark on Monday and Tuesday, too. Though less intense than the previous heat waves, this bout of prolonged heat comes at what’s usually the hottest time of the year. That means it could be dangerous and even deadly.
“Drink plenty of fluids, stay in an air-conditioned room, stay out of the sun, and check up on relatives and neighbors,” the NWS said in its warnings. “Do not leave young children and pets in unattended vehicles. Car interiors will reach lethal temperatures in a matter of minutes.”
This round of sweltering temperatures will almost certainly exacerbate drought conditions in the West, which the Drought Monitor says are “severe” or “exceptional” for 56.8% of the region. The heat draws more moisture from already parched soils, essentially baking in worse conditions.
Frighteningly, this could also increase the spread of already out-of-control wildfires. Right now, 70 blazes are burning in 12 states. The biggest one is the Bootleg Fire, which has been raging through the southern half of Oregon for nine days straight and is just 7% contained. It has burned through nearly 250,000 acres so far and is showing no signs of slowing down, especially with more hot and dry weather on the way.
Large blazes are also ravaging California, where this year’s fires are already outpacing the damage caused by last year’s record-breaking wildfire season. Notably, the Dixie Fire is wreaking havoc on Butte and Plumas Counties. After lighting up on Wednesday, it has more than doubled in size on Thursday, growing to cover 4,965 acres. Just 7% of the fire is contained, meaning it has room to grow.
In Chelan County, Washington, the Red Apple Fire has ripped through 11,000 acres is at 10% contained. The blaze forced 1,500 households to evacuate their homes, and it is still spreading.
The smoke that these wildfires produce is already cloaking much of the West and even drifting over the Atlantic to Greenland. The NWS forecast for Missoula, Montana simply calls for “smoke” for the next five days, underscoring just how gross the air is. The area could get a slight reprieve on Monday where smoke could be briefly broken by a slight chance of rain. Not exactly pleasant news. Much of the Northern Rockies are also under a red flag warning due to the high heat and low humidity, conditions that could cause wildfires to rapidly spread.
In a bizarre and somewhat upsetting twist, the excess smoke could actually curb temperatures this week by blocking out incoming sunlight. But that potential slight cooling effect will come with a high cost; smoke is a huge public health concern and air quality warnings are already been in place in several states this week.
This summer has already been horrific for the western U.S. and Canada alike. Just two weeks ago, extreme temperatures roasted the Pacific Northwest, claiming hundreds of lives. Further north, residents of Lytton, British Columbia were forced to evacuate after wildfire engulfed nearly their entire town. Days before that, the same village broke Canada’s record for the highest temperature ever recorded at an astonishing 121.2 degrees Fahrenheit (49.6 degrees Celsius).
A snap analysis found that heat wave was “virtually impossible” without climate change. Rising background temperatures have made extreme heat more common and severe, and scientists are now operating under the assumption climate change plays a role in basically every extreme heat event. That in turn wreaks all sorts of havoc, including upping the odds of large wildfires, lengthening wildfire season, and worsening drought. The cascading effects of climate change, caused by burning fossil fuels, have been unfortunately on display this year.
As heat sets in across the West yet again, please stay hydrated and check your local stations for warnings and notifications about the heat as well as fires. And check on your neighbors, too, especially older folks and those with underlying health conditions.
Update, July 17, 2021, 10:30 a.m.: This post has been updated with the latest forecast information and more context.