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Western U.S. readies for scorching heat this weekend

Temperatures in California's Death Valley, famed for its record-breaking heat, reached 129 degrees for the first time this year on June 16. (Video: Reuters)

Days after an unprecedented heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest, killing scores, officials in the western United States on Thursday were preparing for a another round of scorching heat expected to hit this weekend.

While not expected to be as deadly as the wave that caused widespread highs of 100 or more, including 116 in Portland and 108 in Seattle, temperatures in the West are likely to be up to 25 degrees above average for this time of year, according to forecasts.

Concerned about vulnerable populations, emergency management departments in cities across central California went into overdrive Thursday as they attempted to prepare and protect their residents.

“This is a clear and present danger,” said Michael Wehner, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Wehner said that while surging temperatures like the country is experiencing this summer might have once been considered highly abnormal, they are no longer.

“Things that were rare are now much more common, and this trend will continue,” he said. “Things that happened once in a lifetime will now happen many times during a lifetime.”

The wave is expected to spread through California and the Desert Southwest up to Oregon, and it could extend into next week. Unusually hot conditions are expected to continue into the fall. Scientists attribute the increasing frequency and severity of heat waves to climate change. Wehner said the heat waves are three to five degrees higher than they would be without climate change.

New scorching heat wave building across Western U.S.

In Sacramento, the county’s Office of Emergency Services on Thursday was in its second day of coordinating a plan to handle the heat. Thousands of emails went out to residents and hundreds more calls were made to warn them of the upcoming extreme weather. The county plans to open 13 cooling centers and offer motel vouchers for what it calls “highly vulnerable unhoused persons” on Friday.

In California’s Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth, temperatures could hit 130 degrees on Saturday. Nevertheless, Death Valley National Park will remain open, said Patrick Taylor, the park’s chief of interpretation and education. Taylor said park staffers will remain indoors.

“Experience has shown that there are many people who enjoy chasing extreme weather, so we anticipate there will be some coming out this weekend specifically for the hot weather,” Taylor said in an email.

Death Valley resident Hans Petersen, 52, said that by Thursday afternoon, the air was already filled with the smell of scorched asphalt.

Petersen, who is spending his first summer there, said his phone had been blowing up with alerts warning locals of the dangers of the impending heat wave. Small talk in Death Valley often revolves around tips on how to stay safe from the heat. Those facing the elements coat themselves in sunscreen. Many wear long-sleeved shirts to protect from the sun’s rays, too, he said.

Petersen said he is limiting his outdoor activity to “just making sure that all of our air-conditioning units are functioning.”

Pacific Northwest suffers through blistering temperatures

But not all the residents in the affected region can afford to stay indoors. There are more than 800,000 farmworkers in California, some of whom may be heading to work in the fields over the weekend.

Federico Castillo, a lecturer and research specialist at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied the impact of heat waves on agricultural workers, said the heat affects farmworkers financially, physically and socioeconomically.

Farmworkers are often paid by the pail, based on how much produce they pick each day, or by the hour. Many are undocumented and poor. Castillo said the average farm laborer misses about two weeks of work a year because of extreme heat — a significant loss in wages for a low-income worker.

Heat-related illnesses are also a greater burden for these workers, he said, because many don’t have health insurance or are underinsured. In addition, high temperatures can impair workers’ cognitive abilities in the field, slowing their efficiency and diminishing the amount of produce they’re able to pick — and the amount they earn each day.

Castillo said educating the workers on the dangers of heat and ways to prevent heat-related illness are critical.

“Ideally there would be a warning system telling farmworkers don’t go out to work because the temperature is going to reach 95 or above. Such a system does not exist, or when it does exist it’s culturally out of context,” he said, adding that sometimes the information is not provided in the workers’ native language.

One study found that heat-related deaths of agricultural workers are about 20 times higher than in the general workforce.

In a United Farm Workers Foundation survey in Washington state, more than half of farmworkers said they experienced a heat illness symptom while working. About 40 percent said their employer has not provided them shade.

Pacific Northwest heat wave was ‘virtually impossible’ without climate change, scientists find

Construction workers, too, are bracing for the extreme heat. The Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters union has been blasting messages via social media warning of the dangers of heat exposure, encouraging group talks before work shifts on the best safety precautions for working in the heat, and disseminating information on the best foods and drinks to consume in such temperatures, said Josh Raper, the union’s regional manager.

“We have a dangerous trade,” Raper said. “We are exposed to the elements more than most, and so we are impacted higher than most.”

Raper said the union has been communicating with contractors in the region to suggest adjusting shift times to end before the hottest parts of the day.

High temperatures have always been a source of concern for construction workers — the surges and unprecedented heat waves have elevated that risk. A former structural concrete worker, Raper said temperatures on normal summer days can rise to more than 140 degrees at work sites.

“The materials we work with — metals, concrete, things of that type — tend to get hotter than the air temperature” and oftentimes the workers are in spaces with no airflow, he said, all of which can raise the temperature by more than 40 degrees.

Raper has witnessed illness from heat exposure numerous times in his career. One man who went into seizures after drinking energy drinks in the heat had to be airlifted out of a work site. People have passed out as co-workers rushed to pour jugs of water on their bodies to cool them down.

“Typically there’s no shade, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. You’re in the elements,” Raper said. “Whether it’s rain, sleet, snow or an extreme heat wave, we have to do what we have to do in the conditions that are dealt us.”