Air quality worsens as 94 fires burn across Western US, Kay weakens

Sep 11, 2022, 12:56 PM
Tropical Storm Kay (Photo courtesy of David Swanson, Reuters)...
Tropical Storm Kay (Photo courtesy of David Swanson, Reuters)
(Photo courtesy of David Swanson, Reuters)

(CNN) — Air quality alerts are in place across much of Washington, Oregon and Idaho as smoke from ongoing fires is leading to poor air quality in the aftermath of a record-breaking heat wave.

There are currently 94 large, active fires burning across eight states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center: Idaho (34), Montana (23), Washington (12), California (11), Oregon (11), Utah (1), Wyoming (1) and Colorado (1).

Red flag warnings are in place across portions of the Washington Cascades through 7 p.m. local time today, where relative humidity is as low as 20%, according to the National Weather Service. The dry air and warm temperatures are contributing to active fire behavior across the region.

There is some hope for firefighters, however: Winds are expected to be much lower on Sunday across the region compared to the last two days, and an increase in dew points may help them make some progress today into early next week, according to CNN meteorologists.

California firefighters battling the destructive flames also got help from a post-tropical cyclone’s lingering showers Saturday.

In the Golden State, residents saw both record rainfall and record heat in the same week, as what used to be Tropical Storm Kay made a rare close pass to California following a prolonged heat wave.

San Diego received 0.61 inches of rain Friday, breaking a previous daily rainfall record of 0.09 inches set in 1976. More than 5 inches of rain was recorded over two days in San Diego County’s Mount Laguna, according to the National Weather Service.

“Believe it or not, rainfall is abnormal for this time of year,” weather service officials in Los Angeles said, adding rainfall records were broken in downtown Los Angeles, Burbank, Los Angeles International Airport and Long Beach Airport.

Kay has weakened from its earlier tropical storm strength, following its landfall in Mexico as a Category 1 hurricane Thursday, according to CNN Meteorologist Derek Van Dam.

Thanks to ample moisture, some rainfall and cooler temperatures, crews battling the Fairview Fire managed to shore up containment of the 28,307-acre blaze to 43%. The raging fire, which broke out Monday, has killed two civilians and injured a third, forced thousands to evacuate, and destroyed 30 buildings.

“With the recent onset of rain, the drought-stricken area has not only received much-needed precipitation, but has also aided firefighters by slowing the spread of the Fairview Fire,” Cal Fire said Friday.

On Saturday, three people were injured when a helicopter assigned to the Fairview Fire crashed in a residential backyard while attempting to land at a local airport, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

A pilot and two fire personnel who were aboard the helicopter were taken to an area trauma center for further evaluation, Cal Fire said.

To the north, cooler temperatures were also welcome relief for crews battling the Mosquito Fire, which had consumed 37,326 acres as of Saturday night as it burned in both El Dorado and Placer counties. Heavy winds have continued the fire’s spread to the north and northeast, fire officials said.

Meanwhile, wildfires were also swallowing large areas of dry vegetation in the Pacific Northwest, where firefighters were contending with hotter, dryer conditions.

The Cedar Creek Fire in Oregon, which started August 1, has so far burned 85,926 acresContainment levels dropped from 12% to zero, a fire public information officer told CNN Sunday morning. Authorities say the “extreme fire behavior” over the last several days has resulted in “significant” growth. About 2,230 homes and 443 structures “remain under threat,” according to InciWeb.

Hot, dry and unstable conditions could also increase fire behavior for Idaho’s Moose Fire, which has currently burned 125,993 acres and is 37% contained, fire officials said.

Summer temperatures make the record books

As the West has been experiencing record-breaking heat, the nation as a whole is dealing with an especially hot summer.

The average temperature in August across the US was 74.6 degrees — 2.5 degrees above average — making it the eighth-warmest August on record. The month was also marked by several extreme rainfall events, resulting in historic flooding, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Overall, it was also the third-hottest meteorological summer on record for the US, according to NOAA.

California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington each ranked warmest on record for August nighttime temperatures.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Texas all saw their second-warmest summer on record.

September has proved no different.

Temperature records were broken across the West over the past week, including in Sacramento, which saw an all-time high of 116 degrees Tuesday.

“This will be essentially the worst September heat wave on record, certainly in Northern California and arguably for the state overall,” UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said Tuesday in a Twitter Spaces discussion. “By some metrics, it might be one of the worst heat waves on record, period, in any month, given its duration and its extreme magnitude.”

The climate crisis is increasing how large heat domes can get, and has increased the frequency, the intensity and duration of heat waves, he said.

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Air quality worsens as 94 fires burn across Western US, Kay weakens