Fire, floods, dead fish: Climate change fuels extreme weather, with no ‘return to normal.’
Extreme Weather and Climate Updates
July 21, 2021Updated July 21, 2021, 4:47 p.m. ETJuly 21, 2021, 4:47 p.m. ETIn rural Oregon, with fire on the horizon, ‘Everybody is freaking out.’‘It’s gross’: A summer of red tides piles up 600 tons of dead fish on Florida beaches.Wildfire smoke spreads haze and health warnings to East Coast.Canadian province declares a state of emergency, evacuating thousands.PG&E plans a 10-year effort to put power lines underground to reduce fire risk.Crews saved a World War II memorial from the Bootleg Fire.At least 25 people were killed by severe flooding in central China.
The sky in Denver was hazy from wildfires on Tuesday as children cooled down in a fountain. Credit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press
A summer of misery stretched across much of the United States this week, with flash floods in the Southeast, deadly monsoons in the desert, a crackling-dry fire season across the Pacific Northwest and hazy skies on the East Coast blotting out a baleful red sun.
Parts of Montana reached 110 degrees this week — more than 20 degrees above normal — while the nation’s largest wildfire continued to explode in southern Oregon, generating its own weather and prompting state officials to warn residents that they face a long and difficult fire season.
“No corner of our state is immune,” Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon told reporters at an emergency briefing on Tuesday, adding that climate change means dangerously large wildfires “are arriving earlier, coming on faster and lasting for longer.”
The Bootleg Fire, which has burned nearly 400,000 acres across southern Oregon since July 6, is already the fourth-largest wildfire in the state since 1900. On Wednesday, officials said that it had been sparked by lightning.
Doug Grafe, the chief of fire protection with the Oregon Department of Forestry, blamed a deepening drought and triple-digit temperatures from a late June heat wave, which killed hundreds of people across the Pacific Northwest, for accelerating fire season. Forests were already as dry in early July, he said, as they usually are in late August.
“This is not going to return to normal any time soon,” Chief Grafe said.
Conditions have been so severe that all land managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources east of the Cascades will temporarily close to the public starting Friday.
Smoke from the Bootleg Fire, as well as other blazes burning across the Western United States and Canada, cast an acrid plume into the upper atmosphere that spread across the continent, adding to the humid haze in New York and other East Coast cities on Tuesday. “Why is the sun red?” was a trending question on search engines.
Elsewhere, severe flooding in central China killed at least 12 people trapped inside a subway in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province, according to state media reports. The flooding inundated much of the city and surrounding region, creating scenes of destruction that suggested the death toll could be much higher. Flooding is routine in China, but it appears to have become more severe, which researchers have attributed to climate change.
Climate change has played a prominent role in many of the extreme weather conditions this summer. While low rainfall and high heat in the West have made wildfires burn earlier and more fiercely, the warmer atmosphere in other parts of the country holds more moisture, which can intensify downpours and flooding. A man died in Minnesota this week after heavy rain and strong winds blew through, capsizing his canoe.
In parts the Southeastern U.S., including the Gulf Coast states, a rash of heavy rain showers and thunderstorms will create “a more widespread threat in the coming days” of flash flooding across much of the region, according to AccuWeather, a private forecasting service. In some areas, 12 inches of rain could fall.
And in southwest Florida, 600 tons of dead fish have washed up on beaches in recent weeks, killed by an especially intense red tide. “This,” proclaimed an editorial in The Tampa Bay Times last week, “is what climate change smells like.”
— The New York Times
Smoke filled the air as the Bootleg Fire approached rural properties near Paisley, Ore., on Tuesday.Credit…David Ryder/Reuters
CHILOQUIN, Ore. — As firefighting crews stretched across central Oregon on Wednesday, battling to contain the nation’s largest wildfire, Tawan Murray sat in the parking lot of Chiloquin High School selling concert-style “Bootleg Wildfire 2021” T-shirts.
Mr. Murray has been moving from town to town following the fire, a kind of merchant of the apocalypse. “Business is slow but steady — so many firefighters are rotating in,” he said.
The Bootleg Fire has burned nearly 400,000 acres across southern Oregon since July 6, when it was sparked by lightning, officials said on Wednesday. It is already the fourth-largest wildfire in the state since 1900, and was burning so hot this week that it essentially generated its own weather and spread unhealthy smoke as far as New York City.
At least 2,000 people in rural Oregon have been ordered to evacuate or to prepare to, as the fire has destroyed 67 homes and another 100 structures, according to the state’s Department of Forestry. Although large and growing, the blaze continued to burn mostly on remote forest land.
About 70 miles northeast of Chiloquin, on the outskirts of Silver Lake, the windows of the Cowboy Dinner Tree restaurant frame miles of desert sagebrush and the forest pines beyond. The establishment takes its name from a juniper tree that has stood nearby for decades; local history has it that cattle drivers stopped in its shade to eat at a chuck wagon along the outback trail.
For a week now, the owners, Jamie and Angel Roscoe, and their five children have been bracing for the order to evacuate their business and nearby home, on 80 acres about a mile from the Fremont National Forest. Residents in some parts of Lake County were told to evacuate immediately, but the Roscoe family has been under an order of “Level 2 readiness,” which means get packed and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
They made preparations to move saddle horses and steers to neighboring ranches. Since then, they have waited and watched. On Wednesday, Mr. Roscoe, 43, carefully took stock of the speed and direction of the wind, judging the threat of the Bootleg Fire, which he said was about 14.5 miles away “as the crow flies.”
The children have prepared bags with their favorite clothes, trinkets and pocketknives. Important papers will stay behind in a fireproof safe. Mr. Roscoe has no idea what his wife has stowed for him. “I don’t care,” he said on Wednesday. “Everything is replaceable, except for my family.”
The Roscoes planned to keep their restaurant open as long as the winds were in their favor. The fire, Mr. Roscoe said, was “playing a crazy game of leapfrog. Everybody is freaking out because of this fire. It is extremely aggressive.”
The thick smoke was everywhere, he said, even inside. “It smells like a campfire inside of my pickup.”
Dead fish from a red tide washed up along a waterfront park in St. Petersburg, Fla., this month.Credit…Arielle Bader/Tampa Bay Times, via Associated Press
COQUINA BEACH, Fla. — The stench hits first, uncomfortable at best and gag-inducing at worst. Then comes a small tickle in the back of the throat that won’t go away.
But it is the dead fish that are the real mark of a red tide. Wednesday on Coquina Beach, south of St. Petersburg, Fla., carcasses were scattered across the shore in small clumps.
“The smell, the dead fish, it’s gross,” said Angie Hampton, 54, who was on vacation from Indiana.
It’s been like that for much of the summer at beaches in the Tampa Bay region and across Southwest Florida, where the harmful algal blooms known as a red tide have killed more than 600 tons of marine life, according to local officials. Some of it was likely pushed ashore by Tropical Storm Elsa two weeks ago.
“This is unusual for Tampa Bay,” said Kate Hubbard, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a bloom of this magnitude.”
Conditions have actually started to improve somewhat in recent days. A week ago, the bacteria in some parts of Tampa Bay were at 10 to 17 times the concentration considered “high,” according to reports from Pinellas County. Red tides at that level “can cause significant respiratory issues in people as well as fish kills,” officials said.
Algal blooms are a natural phenomenon, but both pollution and climate change appear to be making them worse. After leaks were detected this spring from a major wastewater reservoir at Piney Point, south of Tampa, scientists warned that a significant red tide could result.
And although it is difficult to attribute individual events to climate change, research at the University of Florida shows that warming oceans will likely make red tides more frequent and harmful. “This,” proclaimed an editorial in The Tampa Bay Times last week, “is what climate change smells like.”
— Elizabeth Djinis
A haze of wildfire smoke from the Western United States and Canada stretched across North America this week, elevating air quality health risks.CreditCredit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Wildfire smoke from Canada and the Western United States stretched across North America this week, covering skies in a thick haze, tinting the sun a malevolent red and triggering health alerts from Toronto to Philadelphia. Air quality remained in the unhealthy range across much of the East Coast on Wednesday morning.
The map below, based on modeling from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows how the smoke spread across the country. It reflects fine particulate pollution released by wildfires and does not include pollution from other human sources, like power plants and cars.
It’s not unprecedented to see smoke travel such long distances, said Roisin Commane, an atmospheric scientist at Columbia University, but it doesn’t always descend to the surface.
The air quality index, a measure developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, spiked across the Midwest and East Coast this week, with numbers hovering around 130 to 160 in New York City, a range where members of sensitive groups and the general public may experience adverse health effects. (The index runs from 0 to 500; the higher the number, the greater the level of air pollution, with readings over 100 considered particularly unhealthy.)
In other East Coast cities, readings also remained elevated early Wednesday: 126 in Baltimore, 121 in Narragansett, R.I., and 129 in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley.
Eerie red sun rises were recorded across the region. The pollution was forecast to begin lifting over the New York area late Wednesday morning, but the smoke was then expected to push south to Washington, D.C., and Virginia.
More than 80 large fires are currently burning across 13 American states, and many more are active across Canada.
Canadian officials said nearly 300 active wildfires in the province have prompted evacuation orders, impacting more than 5,700 people.CreditCredit…Twitter @Dylangaleas/@Dylangaleas, via Reuters
A provincial state of emergency was declared by the government of British Columbia on Tuesday after wildfires across the region prompted dozens of evacuation orders, officials said.
Mike Farnworth, the minister of public safety and solicitor general, made the declaration based upon the recommendation from the British Columbia Wildfire Service and Emergency Management British Columbia, a news release said. The declaration will remain in effect for two weeks and can be extended if necessary.
The state of emergency will allow provincial and local resources to be delivered in a coordinated response.
There are currently nearly 300 active wildfires across British Columbia and 14 have started in the past two days, according to the government. The majority of the fires are clustered toward the southern tier of the Canadian province, near the borders of Washington and Montana. Wildfires farther east in Canada have forced officials in Minnesota to issue an air-quality alert, affecting much of the state.
The wildfires, which have drawn more than 3,000 firefighters and other personnel, have prompted 40 evacuation orders affecting more than 5,700 people, officials said. Sixty-nine other evacuation alerts affected another 32,000 people.
“I received word that we’ll be facing a few days of very difficult weather in the Interior,” Mr. Farnworth said in a statement. “This declaration will address the potential of a mass evacuation scenario and provide our government with the means to secure the accommodation spaces necessary to house our citizens, if necessary.”
The extended weather forecast called for continued hot and dry conditions, with heightened wind activity in the Interior and southeastern British Columbia, the release said. A large swath of the province was either under a high or an extreme risk of wildfires starting.
Officials this month announced precautionary measures to address safety concerns around extreme weather and wildfire risks, including reducing train speeds when temperatures are at least 86 degrees Fahrenheit and when the fire danger level for the area is “extreme.”
Downed power lines in Paradise, Calif., where PG&E equipment caused a fire that destroyed the town and killed 85 people in 2018.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Pacific Gas & Electric announced an ambitious plan on Wednesday to put 10,000 miles of its power lines underground to prevent the kind of wildfires that led the utility to bankruptcy court in 2019.
The project, which would involve about 10 percent of the lines currently above ground, could cost tens of billions of dollars to carry out.
The company, California’s largest electricity provider, said the work would aim first at areas most vulnerable to wildfires and expand throughout its service territory, which includes 5.5 million electric customers in Northern and Central California.
PG&E’s announcement followed a preliminary report over the last week to state regulators that its equipment may have caused the Dixie Fire, one of the state’s largest blazes, which has burned at least 85,000 acres. The fire is spreading in Butte County, where the utility’s equipment caused a fire that destroyed the town of Paradise and killed 85 people in 2018.
Although utilities across the country have increasingly moved their power lines underground, none have proposed a project on the scale of PG&E’s plan.
“We need you to know that we are working night and day to solve this incredible problem,” Patricia K. Poppe, chief executive of PG&E Corporation, the utility’s parent.
This year the company is putting 70 miles of lines underground, so increasing the work to 1,000 miles would be a leap. “That’s the moonshot,” Ms. Poppe said on a call with reporters. “It should be a shocking number because it’s a big goal.”
She said that the company had planned to make the announcement in a few months but that it had decided to do so now because of the growing public concern about fire safety.
Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, which represents consumers before the California Public Utilities Commission, said that reducing wildfire risk was a priority but that the utility must develop a plan that would fund the huge project without overburdening ratepayers. The project could cost $40 billion based on about $4 million per mile estimated for underground power line proposals that PG&E has submitted to state regulators, Mr. Toney said.
“We’d be living in a world where only the wealthy could afford electricity,” Mr. Toney said. “PG&E needs a plan to reduce the most risk possible at the least cost possible to ratepayers.”
Ms. Poppe said the utility hoped to get the per-mile expense down sufficiently to put the overall cost at $15 billion to $20 billion. “We can’t put a price on the risk reduction and safety,” she said.
The company said that it could install about a quarter-mile of power lines underground a day but that it aimed to increase that to 1,000 miles or more a year to prevent fires.
PG&E has been a focus of the impact of climate change since a series of record-setting wildfires began burning through Northern California in 2017, several of them caused by the utility’s equipment.
The utility has taken several steps to prevent fires, including installing equipment to monitor weather conditions and to allow lines to be shut off remotely. But the effectiveness of those efforts has increasingly come under question, particularly after the company reported that its equipment might have caused the Dixie Fire. The wildfire season has months to go before its peak.
State regulators and the courts have fined the utility billions of dollars for failing to maintain its equipment and causing fires. The company, which emerged from bankruptcy last year after amassing $30 billion in wildfire liability, pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter related to the Paradise fire.
It was the second felony conviction for the utility. In 2016, PG&E was found guilty of federal charges related to a gas pipeline explosion six years earlier in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno that killed eight people.
A tanker drops retardant over the Mitchell Monument area last week.Credit…Bootleg Fire Incident Command, via Associated Press
Firefighters assigned to battle the Bootleg Fire in southwestern Oregon last week helped save a memorial at the site of the only casualties in the contiguous United States from direct enemy action during World War II.
The memorial, called the Mitchell Monument, is in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, where the Bootleg Fire began more than two weeks ago. The monument, which is made of stone and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, commemorates the deaths of six people who were killed by a Japanese bomb more than 75 years ago.
The bomb was one of thousands that Japan attached to balloons, which were carried by wind currents over the Pacific Ocean to North America. They would occasionally explode in the timberlands of the Pacific Northwest, causing forest fires.
In May 1945, the Rev. Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wife, Elsie, and five children from his Sunday school planned to picnic at a spot in the forest about 10 miles northeast of Bly, Ore. The group reached the site, and the Rev. Mitchell let everyone out of the car to explore, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While her husband parked the car, Ms. Mitchell and the children discovered the bomb, which exploded, killing everyone except the Rev. Mitchell. The children ranged from 11 to 14 years old.
Last week, firefighters wrapped the memorial and a nearby “Shrapnel Tree,” which shows signs of the blast, in protective materials, Sarah Gracey, a firefighting operations spokeswoman, told OregonLive.com.
“It’s one of the successes so far,” Ms. Gracey said.
A public information officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry told The Herald and News in Klamath Falls that the monument was no longer in the path of the fire and was at “much lower risk” of being damaged.
Residents waded through a flooded road amid heavy rainfall in Zhengzhou, China, on Tuesday.Credit…China Daily/Reuters
Severe flooding has killed at least 25 people in central China, according to state media reports, including at least 12 who were trapped inside a subway in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan Province.
The flooding inundated much of the city and surrounding region, creating scenes of destruction that suggested the death toll could be much higher.
Torrential rain that began on Sunday and continued through Wednesday was the heaviest on record in Zhengzhou, reported China’s state television network, CCTV. At one point, nearly eight inches of rain fell in one hour in Zhengzhou, a city of five million along the Yellow River.
The heaviest rainfall on record in parts of central China triggered heavy flooding. Rescue workers assisted people trapped in buses, houses, and buildings.CreditCredit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Trapped passengers posted videos showing water rising to their chests or necks. In one video, water surged outside the subway car’s windows. Other photographs and videos — some later apparently removed by censors — showed several lifeless bodies on a subway platform.
It was not immediately clear how many people had been trapped in the city’s subway, which began operating in 2013 and now has seven lines and 148 stations. The entire system remained closed on Wednesday morning.
The death and destruction in and around Zhengzhou seemed certain to add to the grim global toll that extreme weather has taken already this year. Researchers have said climate change is causing the scorching heat in the Pacific Northwest, forest fires in Siberia, and flooding in Germany and Belgium.
Flooding is routine in China, and the Communist Party government has made strides to try to tame the country’s volatile rivers and streams, but the risks appear to have become more severe, overwhelming drainage systems and rescue efforts and posing a test to the leadership.
A helicopter in Angelus Oaks, Calif., dropped water on the El Dorado Fire in September.Credit…Eric Thayer for The New York Times
A Southern California couple are facing manslaughter charges in connection with a deadly wildfire last September that prosecutors say was sparked by a smoke bomb during a gender reveal.
The El Dorado Fire, which began at a park in Yucaipa, Calif., killed a firefighter and injured two other firefighters while burning more than 22,000 acres across San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.
A grand jury indicted the couple, Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez, on one count each of involuntary manslaughter, San Bernardino County’s district attorney, Jason Anderson, said at a news conference on Tuesday. They also face three felony counts of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, four felony counts of recklessly causing a fire to inhabited structures and 22 misdemeanor counts.
About half of wildfires in the Western United States are caused by people — from downed power lines, discarded cigarettes, untended campfires — while the other half are started by lightning.
“Obviously, he wouldn’t have been out there if this hadn’t started in the first place,” Mr. Anderson said of Charles Morton, 39, the firefighter who was killed. “He’s fighting a fire that was started because of a smoke bomb. That’s the only reason he’s there.”
Both Mr. and Ms. Jimenez, who held the gender reveal, pleaded not guilty and were released without having to post bail. Lawyers representing them could not be immediately reached for comment.
Mr. Anderson said that if they were convicted, they could face several years in jail.
Mr. Morton began working at the San Bernardino National Forest in 2007, according to a statement from the U.S. Forest Service, and was survived by his wife, daughter, parents and two brothers. Vicki Christiansen, the agency’s chief, called Mr. Morton “a well-respected firefighter and leader who was always there for his squad and his crew at the toughest times.”
Remnants of the Bootleg Fire near Klamath Falls, Oregon, on Saturday.Credit…U.S. Forest Service, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
As large swaths of the West dry out and burn, scientists say climate change is playing an increasing role in the earlier fire seasons, the deadly heat waves and the lack of water.
The record-high temperatures that assaulted the Pacific Northwest in late June and early July, for instance, would have been all but impossible without climate change, according to a team of researchers who studied the deadly heat wave.
Heat, drought and fire are connected, and because human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases have raised baseline temperatures nearly two degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1900, heat waves, including those in the West, are becoming hotter and more frequent.
“The Southwest is getting hammered by climate change harder than almost any other part of the country, apart from perhaps coastal cities,” Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan, recently told The New York Times. “And as bad as it might seem today, this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”
Dozens of wildfires are actively burning across the Western United States, charring large swaths of land in recent days, according to a New York Times analysis of government and satellite data. Some are threatening thousands of people who live and work just a few miles away.
As the fire season gets underway, The Times built an interactive map to track the latest wildfires as they spread across Western states. Check back regularly for updates.