If confirmed as accurate, the 54-degree reading would be the hottest high recorded there since July 1913, when Furnace Creek desert hit 57 degrees, considered the highest measured temperature on Earth.
About 480 kilometers north-west of the sizzling desert, the largest wildfire of the year in California was raging along the border with Nevada. The Beckwourth Complex Fire — a combination of two lightning-caused fires burning 72 kilometers north of Lake Tahoe — showed no sign of slowing its rush north-east from the Sierra Nevada forest region after doubling in size between Friday and Saturday.
The fire in Plumas National Forest showed “extreme behaviour,” fire information officer Lisa Cox said.
Hot rising air formed a gigantic, smoky pyrocumulonimbus cloud that reached thousands of feet high and created its own lightning, Cox said. The clouds can, in turn, make the fire spread even faster — in addition to lightning, they can create erratic, ember-spitting winds.
Spot fires caused by embers leapt up to 1.6 kilometers ahead of the north-eastern flank — too far for firefighters to safely battle — and winds funnelled the fire up canyons full of dry fuel, where “it can actually pick up speed,” Cox said. The flames rose up to 30 metres in places, forcing firefighters to focus instead on building dozer lines to protect homes.
Firefighters usually take advantage of cooler, more humid nights to advance on a fire, Cox said, but the heat and low humidity never let up. The more than 1200 firefighters were aided by aircraft. But the blaze was expected to continue forging ahead.
The air was so dry that some of the water dropped by aircraft evaporated before reaching the ground, she added.
“We’re expecting more of the same the day after and the day after and the day after,” Cox said.
“As long as it’s this hot and we have these low humidities, it’s kind of hard to tell when and where we’re going to catch this,” she said.
Fire crews were seeing group torching and long-range spotting as flames tore through timber stands, she said.
“That increases the velocity of the spread of the fire because the fire’s actually moving amongst the treetops,” she said. “Basically, it just runs across the trees until it runs out of trees.”
Late on Saturday, flames jumped Interstate 395 and was threatening properties in Nevada’s Washoe County. “Take immediate steps to protect large animals and livestock,” the The Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District tweeted.
The blaze, which was only 8 per cent contained, increased dramatically to 222 square kilometres as firefighters sweltered in 38-degree temperatures.
It was one of several threatening homes across western states that were expected to see hot conditions heat through the weekend as a high-pressure zone blankets the region.
Pushed by strong winds, a wildfire in southern Oregon doubled in size to 311 square kilometres on Saturday as it raced through heavy timber in the Fremont-Winema National Forest near the Klamath County town of Sprague River.
The National Weather Service warned the dangerous conditions could cause heat-related illnesses, while California’s power grid operator issued a statewide alert from 4pm to 9pm to avoid disruptions and rolling blackouts.
The California Independent System Operator warned of potential power shortage, not only because of mounting heat, but because a wildfire in southern Oregon was threatening transmission lines that carry imported power to California.
Governor Gavin Newsom issued an emergency proclamation on Friday suspending rules to allow for more power capacity, and the ISO requested emergency assistance from other states. On Saturday, Newsom issued another proclamation allowing the emergency use of auxiliary ship engines to relieve pressure on the electric grid.
Palm Springs in Southern California hit a record high temperature of 49 degrees on Saturday. It was the fourth time temperatures have reached 48 degrees so far this year, the Desert Sun reported.
In California’s agricultural Central Valley, 38-degree temperatures blanketed the region, with Fresno reaching 44 degrees, just degree short of the all-time high.
Las Vegas late on Saturday afternoon tied the all-time record high of 47 degrees, the National Weather Service said. The city has recorded that record-high temperature four other times, most recently in June 2017.
NV Energy, Nevada’s largest power provider, also urged customers to conserve electricity on Saturday and Sunday evenings because of the heat wave and wildfires affecting transmission lines throughout the region.
In Southern California, a brush fire sparked by a burning big rig in eastern San Diego County forced evacuations of two Native American reservations on Saturday.
In north-central Arizona, Yavapai County on Saturday lifted an evacuation warning for Black Canyon City, 66 kilometres north of Phoenix, after a fire in nearby mountains no longer posed a threat. In Mohave County, Arizona, two firefighters died Saturday after a aircraft they were in to respond to a small wildfire crashed, local media reported.
A wildfire in south-east Washington grew to almost 155 square kilometers as it blackened grass and timber while it moved into the Umatilla National Forest.
In Idaho, Governor Brad Little declared a wildfire emergency on Friday and mobilised the state’s National Guard to help fight fires sparked after lightning storms swept across the drought-stricken region.
New York Daily News, AP