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Ariz. Wildfire Spreads as Record-Breaking Heat Wave Grips Eastern U.S.

June 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Tanker airplanes on Thursday swooped over the mountains of Eastern Arizona, dropping clouds of retardant in hopes of containing the so-called Wallow wildfire. Also, much of the Eastern U.S. suffered temperatures reaching well into the 90s. Ray Suarez discusses the extreme weather with AccuWeather's Evan Myers.

JEFFREY BROWN: A late-spring heat wave burned its way into the record books in the Eastern U.S. today, causing at least seven deaths. And in the West, an inferno of a different kind, an out-of-control wildfire, raged on.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Again and again today, tanker planes swooped over the mountains of eastern Arizona, dropping clouds of reddish-orange retardant, and hoping to tamp down the so-called “Wallow” fire. The massive blaze has burned an area comparable in size to Phoenix and threatens several small towns in its path.

Fire information officer Jim Whittington.

JIM WHITTINGTON, Southwest Area Fire Management: We’re a long ways from talking about containment. We’re just trying to check the spread right now. And we’re doing the best we can on that.

RAY SUAREZ: As the fire advanced, authorities forced a mandatory evacuation of the nearly 7,000 residents of Springerville and Eagar.

MAN: Is anybody in here?

RAY SUAREZ: And there was the smoke, an acrid haze that blanketed the region and made breathing difficult. Some of those who fled Springerville took to nearby shelters.

WOMAN: I still smell smoke. I still smell that smoke. My eyes are still itchy and burny, but not as bad.

RAY SUAREZ: High winds full of burning embers also carried the threat of flames and smoke far from the main body of the fire. Crews worked overtime to smother flare-ups near high-voltage power lines. Officials said the lines were in no immediate danger.

And the fire information officer voiced hope.

JIM WHITTINGTON: In terms of optimism today, the best thing I can say is that the weather’s going to be a little bit more moderated than what we have seen over the — the life of this fire, and it’s going to give us an opportunity to get some work done on that top corner. And we’re going to work really hard to pull that off today.

RAY SUAREZ: At this point, no serious injuries from the Wallow fire or two smaller fires have been reported, but farther east…

BOY: It’s blazing! I’m sweating bullets.

RAY SUAREZ: … much of the eastern half of the country was suffering under roasting heat again today. Temperatures usually reserved for August, in the 90s, and even over 100 degrees, were recorded in many places.

MAN: I’m just about done, well-done.

RAY SUAREZ: Excessive heat warnings were issued in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where, it was so hot, roads buckled. And the shores of Lake Michigan were packed in Chicago. Temperatures in the Windy City were the highest in five years, just a few months after a winter that saw record cold and snow.

WOMAN: Wintertime, I’m, Oh, I can’t wait for the summer. Bring it on, bring it on. Summer get here: It’s too hot. I’m ready for the winter again.

RAY SUAREZ: Records also fell up and down the East Coast. In New York City, those brave enough to venture out endured 97-degree heat.

WOMAN: It’s really rough.


WOMAN: It’s really hot.

MAN: It feels like it’s August. And it is hot and it is warm.

RAY SUAREZ: And there wasn’t much relief underground either.

WOMAN: I was managing out there until I got here. That’s when I started sweating.

RAY SUAREZ: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited one of the city’s 400 cooling centers and urged caution.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, (I) mayor of New York City: It’s a good time to stop in on a neighbor, particularly someone that is older, living by themselves, and say, you know, I just want to make sure you’re cool enough, and to go — you can go to a mall. You can go to movies. You can go to a cooling center.

RAY SUAREZ: Others took time off to swarm beaches in New Jersey.

Readings were on track to break 100 in Philadelphia this week, where sticky air smeared the skies with haze. Some schools in the Northeast planned to close early for a second day, so students wouldn’t have to suffer.

WOMAN: It’s really hot. Like, it’s like 100-and-something degrees. And classrooms are really baking.

RAY SUAREZ: For others, like these construction workers in Virginia, there was no reprieve from the heat.

MAN: We got a little breeze, but it’s still hot. It’s real hot.

RAY SUAREZ: Still, forecasters said there was some relief on the way. A cold front was expected to move into the Midwest tonight and then head east.

We take a closer look now at the heat wave and what relief is in store for the country and the fire-ravaged Southwest with Evan Myers of AccuWeather.

Evan, welcome.

What’s going on overhead to create such high temperatures in such a big chunk of the country?

EVAN MYERS, AccuWeather: Well, Ray, there’s a couple different reasons, what’s going on.

Number one, we can just tell, in the short term, there’s just a massive area of high pressure, a big ridge in the upper atmosphere that extends from the East Coast all the way back into the Southwestern states. And it’s just been pumping hot and dry air out of Mexico. So, we know that that’s the reason why this is occurring.

Something else is going on. We certainly know that something greater is happening. There is a greater percentage of warm years that have occurred recently than would be the normal distribution. So, whether that is human-induced or whether it’s part of a natural cycle, I don’t think it really matters.

I think we need to be prudent in how we move forward in the future and really think about the things we do that might affect the climate. But, certainly, this hot weather across the Southern part of the country is going to stick around for a while.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it early in the year, unusually early in the year, for places, even places that expect very hot days and very hot summers, to see temperatures like this?

EVAN MYERS: Well, it is — certainly, we have been breaking records. Temperatures in the mid 90s and the upper 90s from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore and Washington is not extraordinary this time of year. We have gotten close to the records, and we have broken records in some cities, like Philadelphia and Baltimore — in Baltimore, two days in a row of 99 degree heat, in Washington, D.C., 102 degrees today. That tied the all-time record for this date. That was set back when Ulysses S. Grant was president back in 1874.

So, you have to go back 137 years to see anything like what we have seen the last couple of days in the Eastern part of the country and back into the Midwest.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that hot weather still going to hang on in parts of the East and the Northeast?

EVAN MYERS: Well, it looks like it’s going to hold on from New York City on southward to the Philadelphia/Baltimore area into Friday. But it is going to turn somewhat cooler in those areas over the weekend.

But from the Carolinas, down to Atlanta, and then back west through Texas, and even into Arizona, it certainly looks like the heat is going to hold for the foreseeable future.

RAY SUAREZ: The official first day of summer is still a couple of weeks away, but does it look like it’s going to be a tough summer for the United States?

EVAN MYERS: Well, it really all depends on where you are.

Across the Carolinas, down into the Southeast, and across the Gulf Coast, and then back into the Southwestern states, and up through the Intermountain West, it does look like it’s going to be a very hot and dry summer. But it does look like it’s going to be moister and cooler across the upper Midwest and perhaps even into the central Mississippi Valley.

RAY SUAREZ: The Southwest, where those wildfires have been so hard to contain, has been laboring under a drought for some time. In the near term, is there any good news on the way in the form of moister air, calmer winds, maybe even a little rain?

EVAN MYERS: Well, there’s a couple of things.

For at least through the weekend, it looks like the winds will be calmer. And that is certainly good news. The monsoon season, which is the seasonal rains that set in, in July and August and sometimes as early as the early part or middle part of June — that’s the moisture that comes out of the Gulf of Mexico up the Rio Grande Valley into the Southwest — there is no sign that that is going to happen any time soon.

Phoenix, Arizona, has only had one inch of rain so far this year. They don’t get a lot. Normally, they would have about three inches up to this point. But you can see how dry it is. And there is no sign that is going to change any time soon.

RAY SUAREZ: And how long has it been since they have had a regular year of rain? Is there a persisting year-to-year-to-year cycle that the Southwest is laboring under?

EVAN MYERS: Well, the Southwest, the deep Southwest, down towards the Mexican border, places like Phoenix and Tucson, have been laboring under very dry conditions for a while.

It’s kind of interesting. If you get further north in the central and northern Rockies, actually, this spring and winter were very moist. And they have some worries about flooding as it starts to heat up because they have a tremendous snowpack up in — up in that area, just a little bit further north from Arizona.

RAY SUAREZ: Evan Myers from AccuWeather, thanks for joining us.

EVAN MYERS: Sure, Ray. Glad to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Also today, parts of downtown Detroit were hit with a blackout when heavy demand for air conditioning overloaded the power system. The city hall, county courthouse and other major sites were in the dark.