Western Heat Waves Have Sucked all Available Moisture and California is in a Dire State

The West is experiencing unprecedented heat waves, shattering all-time, monthly, and daily records and putting California’s electrical grid to the test. The stifling heat, possibly reaching its peak, is forecast to last over the following weekend. An abnormally strong area of high pressure, or heat dome, is parked over the western United States, causing air to sink and dry out and preventing widespread rainfall. Over 50 million people in the western third of the Lower 48 states were under heat advisories and warnings on Wednesday morning. The National Weather Service issued a warning in an early Wednesday forecast: “Expect sizzling temperatures to stick around through mid-week following another day of record heat on Tuesday from California to the central High Plains.”

The Independent System Operator of California warned residents to be prepared for possible rotating power outages

The California Independent System Operator warned residents on Tuesday, advising them to be prepared for possible rotating power outages in the evening as the state’s electricity demand may reach a record high due to protracted heat waves. Multiple days of triple-digit temperatures were recorded in the Bay Area and other parts of the state, and officials at CAISO, which oversees electricity over the state’s high-voltage transmission lines, predicted that demand would exceed 52,000 megawatts on Tuesday evening. The peak demand on Monday was 49,020 megawatts.

Tuesday afternoon, California ISO, the state’s grid operator, declared a Stage 2 emergency. It raised the alert level to Level 3 in the evening, indicating that rotating power outages are “highly probable.” The state avoided widespread rolling blackouts, but Governor Gavin Newsom issued a warning Tuesday night “We are not yet out of the woods. This week will feature constant extreme temperatures.” The Redwood City campus of Stanford University may be impacted, though the university does not anticipate the planned outages to affect its main campus.

Californians were reminded to conserve electricity on Wednesday to alleviate strain on the state’s power grid amid record heat waves

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO) tweeted, “Consumers are strongly urged to reduce their electricity consumption.”

Although massive blackouts were prevented, at least three Northern California municipalities experienced a momentary loss of power on Tuesday night, as The Los Angeles Times reported. It is unclear why this occurred, given that California’s power grid operator told the Los Angeles Times that they “did not order rotating outages.” Temperatures on Tuesday reached all-time highs in several locations across the state, including Sacramento (116 degrees) and San Jose (109 degrees).

At least four people were killed, and numerous evacuation orders were issued due to multiple wildfires fueled by the heat waves. New evacuation orders were released Wednesday afternoon in northern California’s El Dorado and Placer counties for places adjacent to the Mosquito Fire. The fire had consumed a minimum of 1.8 square miles and was not contained. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reports that at least 16 active wildfires started over the past week.

On Monday, two people were found dead in the Fairview Fire, located in Riverside County to the southeast of Los Angeles. The fire was 5% contained and had consumed more than 7 square miles by Wednesday morning. Tuesday afternoon, more evacuation orders were issued after several had already been published.

In Siskiyou County, 600 miles north, the Mill Fire also claimed at least two lives. On Wednesday morning, 65% of the blaze was contained after burning approximately 6.5 square miles. More than 115 buildings were destroyed, and dozens more were severely damaged. The Mountain Fire, a more enormous blaze, was burning nearby. It burned over 18 square miles and killed at least four structures. As of Wednesday morning, thirty percent of the Mountain Fire was contained.

The majority of California remains under a heat advisory. The National Weather Service warns that anyone exposed to triple-digit temperatures faces a high risk of heat-related illness. The majority of the state also continues to experience persistent drought.

The scariest part is yet to come, say experts

Brent Wachter, a fire meteorologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Geographic Coordination Center in Redding, used the term “flash drying” to describe what transpired across the state over the past few days. “In a shorter period, dead and living fuels experience significant drying,” Wachter explained. It increases the landscape’s combustibility.

Wildfires are typically active in the late afternoon to early evening, when temperatures peak and winds are gusting; they subside overnight when winds die and temperatures cool. “That’s how flammable the fuels are; overnight, fires are actively growing,” he said.

The weather events that take place in the upcoming months will determine how severe the effects of the extremely dry fuels will be. Wachter stated that the most immediate weather system forecasters are monitoring is a weak trough of low pressure expected to pass over Southern Oregon and the farthest reaches of Northern California on Wednesday night, including Siskiyou and Trinity counties.

While the remnants of the hurricane are an immediate concern, the potential for offshore winds in the coming weeks is even more frightening. These desiccating winds are known for fanning the flames of wildfires by transporting hot air from inland regions to the coast. Numerous of California’s most devastating and destructive fires have occurred during offshore wind, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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