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Sweltering temperatures in Pacific Northwest dredge up fears of wildfires

The Pacific Northwest is facing a third straight day with record-setting triple digit temperatures. The National Weather Service estimates the heat to be up to 30 degrees higher than normal. The heat wave is straining power capacity in the region and forcing people to find relief where they can. Scientists believe human-driven climate change may be a contributor. Stephanie Sy reports from Oregon.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The Pacific Northwest is getting hit for a third straight day with record-setting triple digit temperatures. The heat wave is straining the capacity in the region and forcing people to find relief wherever they can.

    Stephanie Sy reports from Oregon.

  • Stephaine Sy:

    Another day, another record-breaking high across the Pacific Northwest. In Portland, Oregon, temperatures hit 108 degrees on Saturday, then 112 on Sunday. Today, highs were expected to reach 115.

    In Ashland, Oregon, people and their pets took shelter at a cooling center, offering air conditioning and cold water.

    Julie Akins, Mayor of Ashland, Oregon: I think it's a public health emergency.

  • Stephaine Sy:

    Mayor Julie Akins warned, the heat can be deadly.

  • Julia Akins:

    The most vulnerable in this heat wave are the most vulnerable all the time. And the heat wave exacerbates that, right? So we're talking about unhoused people. We're talking about people below the poverty line, who either don't have air conditioning in their homes or who can't — or fear running their power because they can't afford the high power bills.

  • Stephaine Sy:

    Excessive heat warnings are in effect across Oregon and Washington state, as well as parts of California, Nevada, Idaho, and Montana.

    The National Weather Service estimates temperatures are up to 30 degrees higher than they normally would be at this time. Scientists believe human-driven climate change increases the odds and intensity of more extreme heat waves.

    Meanwhile, utility companies face soaring demand, leading to power outages for thousands. Many homes in the region don't have air conditioning at all.

    Allan Shepherd, Trying to Deal With Heat Wave: This breaker right here runs most of the power to the trailer.

  • Stephaine Sy:

    Allan Shepherd does have air conditioning in his R.V., where he lives with his grandkids, but it's been unreliable since the weekend.

  • Allan Shepherd:

    We let the kids run down to the showers and take showers. And that cools them off for a little while. We do have A.C. But, when it gets so hot, it shuts — — it breaks the breakers.

  • Stephaine Sy:

    Shepherd has lived in the R.V. since his mobile home burned down in a wildfire last September.

    Now some of the same dry conditions, coupled with the unprecedented heat, are dredging up familiar fear for folks like Charlie and Lenore Shiveley, who also lost their home to a wildfire last year.

    Lenore Shiveley, Trying to Deal With Heat Wave: We have been discussing that amongst ourselves of building back in wildfire areas. Like, a whole year and a year-and-a-half or two could go by, and the same thing could happen. And so it's like we're in our 70s, and it's like, let's start over again.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And Stephanie joins me now from the city of Ashland in Southern Oregon.

    Stephanie, it's good to see you.

    Just fill us in a little bit more on the picture about what you're seeing there on the ground, the impact of these extraordinary temperatures.

  • Stephaine Sy:

    Well, Amna, we're at the epicenter of what is the most intense heat wave in this region in recorded history.

    It is 109 here in Ashland, Oregon. It has reached its peak. I have been out here for about 25 minutes, and I can feel my heart starting to race. And it is not just here. This heat dome is covering much of the Western United States, all the way up into Canada.

    And the fact is, people here are just not prepared for this, they're not equipped for it. About two-thirds of Oregon households have air conditioning. That is one-third that doesn't have it. And in Seattle, those households are even fewer.

    So we are seeing a lot of people trying to find cool places to be right now in this extreme heat.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Steph, we see you're standing there across the street from a fire station. How are the authorities coping? How are officials handling all this?

  • Stephaine Sy:

    Well, what they're doing is, they're standing up cooling centers throughout the state at libraries, at Convention Centers, where people who don't have A.C. can seek relief.

    And we have seen people go through there. And just to emphasize how dangerous this heat can be, we did hear of one man with a developmental disability that showed up at the cooling center here in Ashland last night with symptoms of heatstroke. He did have to be hospitalized, was released and had to stay in shelter.

    But it's the unhoused people that they're looking the most carefully at, that they're concerned about. They are the most vulnerable. You see that economic disparity. People that have a little bit more money are booking hotels. Hotels are booked out in this area for people seeking relief for the next couple of days.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Steph, of course, as we have reported before — and we all know there's a difference between weather and climate. We are talking about these extreme temperatures right now, but what does that mean about the larger and longer-term concerns for folks out there?

  • Stephaine Sy:

    This current weather pattern, Amna, is just one aspect of what state officials here in Oregon have deemed a climate crisis.

    This state is extremely scarce of water right now. They're in the middle of a 20-year drought, as is much of the Western United States, not to mention that we're at the beginning of wildfire season. And a year ago, wildfire season here in Oregon was devastating . Towns were lost. Homes were lost.

    We interviewed people today that are still living in R.V.s. in those parks, without homes rebuilt, so they're still recovering. Firefighters here are really hoping that they don't see any new sparks of wildfires during this extreme heat wave, which isn't supposed to lift until Tuesday.

    We can look at any one weather pattern and say there are a lot of factors that contributed to it. But without any prompting, several officials that we spoke to do point to human-caused climate change. And they see this as an example of an alarm bell ringing in a cacophony of alarm bells here in Oregon, and that climate needs to be addressed, that the warming trend needs to be reversed with immediate action.

    That's what we're hearing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's a disturbing trend, for sure, and worrying, worrying conditions on the ground.

    That is Stephanie Sy braving 109-degree heat to bring us that report from Southern Oregon.

    Stephanie, good to see you. Please stay safe.

  • Stephaine Sy:

    Thank you.

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