Extreme heat, early wildfires part of 'new normal,' experts say
Extreme weather like the deadly heat wave that hit Oregon at the end of June are a sign of things to come, state officials said Monday, July 12.
The National Weather Service has reported temperatures in the last week of June obliterated all-time heat records: 101 in Astoria, 109 in Bend, 112 in Redmond, 116 in Portland, 117 in Salem and 118 in Hermiston. Other cities "only" tied their hottest marks: Pendleton at 113 and Medford at 115.
The thermometer readings were "otherworldly," Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said Monday. "The reality is that such excessive and deadly conditions are here to stay," Allen said.
Oregon's death toll from the heat is 83, with another 32 still under investigation, Allen said.
More than 800 people sought help from heat-related medical issues during the scorching temps.
The heat wave added to 18 months of catastrophes that have hit Oregon. Since early 2020, the state has had historic floods in Eastern Oregon, the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires that burned over 1 million acres, smoke smothering the entire state, power outages from ice storms and a protracted drought that has reservoirs in some areas at a fraction of their designed capacity.
Andrew Phelps, director of the Office of Emergency Management, said Monday the state had launched a review of the response to the heat wave. It's an effort to alter expectations of both the public and officials as to what is "normal" when it comes to weather.
One question on the table: Why didn't Gov. Kate Brown make an emergency declaration as the heat wave approached?
Phelps said he believed most people knew well ahead of time that the heat wave was coming and to take precautions. The emergency declaration would not have changed public agency responses. "If you overuse a tool like an emergency declaration just to sound an alarm, it becomes white noise in the background," Phelps said.
Fariborz Pakseresht, director of the Department of Human Services, said the state's 211 phone information system had stumbled during the heat wave, with his agency's staff confirming complaints that the call centers were understaffed on the weekend and didn't have information callers sought about resources in their area.
The heat compounds years of drought conditions to create extreme fire risk around much of the state. Already, hundreds of thousands of acres have burned.
The officials on Monday did not address the status of the current fires in Oregon. As of mid-afternoon on Monday, nearly 170,000 acres had burned in more than 20 fires. Most of the damage is being done by a trio of blazes in Central and Southern Oregon.
The Bootleg Fire in sparsely populated Klamath County has grown to 150,000 acres and is zero percent contained. The fire has destroyed seven homes and 43 other structures. No injuries or fatalities have been reported.
The Jack Fire in eastern Douglas County has burned about 11,000 acres and injured eight people. The state's official fire website reports no homes or structures as having burned and the fire is an estimated 8% contained.
While most fires are knocked down before they grow to more than 10 acres, those that move rapidly can explode in a matter of hours. The Grandview Fire near Sisters in Deschutes County went from 300 acres on Sunday to 4,000 acres by Monday morning, according to Oregon Department of Forestry reports mid-day Monday. One person has been injured.
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