The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No one was prepared for the Northwest heat wave — especially not the animals

Monty, a herding dog mix, cools off in the Sandy River in northwestern Oregon on June 26. (Dave Killen/The Oregonian via AP)

Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.

I knew everyone was in for a rough time when the crows went quiet. It’s baby bird season here in Portland, Ore., and a family of crows and their fledglings have taken up residence in the yard. The babies have fuzzy heads and make flying look like hard work. Their call sounds like they’ve swallowed a kazoo; it usually ends in a strangled garble as their parents stick food down their beaks.

I stopped hearing them Sunday. It was 100 degrees by noon; even before that, the fledglings had their beaks open and their wings out, and were panting rapidly to cool themselves. I didn’t know crows could look so miserable.

The coastal portion of the Pacific Northwest is a temperate rainforest, but it no longer feels like we live in a rainy climate. There were no April showers this year; it was the driest April on record. March and May weren’t much better. This past weekend, we had three days of record-breaking temperatures, peaking on Monday at 116 degrees. The air has been so hot and dry that my throat hurts from breathing. Living through a heat dome is a bit like living inside a snow globe — if someone stuck it in the oven.

No one was prepared for this. Our wildlife, plants and even our infrastructure — asphalt roads have buckled and streetcar cables have melted because of the heat — are made for a damp, mild climate, not for Death Valley.

As temperatures climbed into the upper 90s on Friday, I watched a neighborhood group on Facebook flood with posts from people frantically looking for air conditioners. One man, giving up the search, asked whether anyone with a cool home could take his 150-pound bull mastiff for the weekend. Neighbors posted when hardware stores got shipments of 10 or 50 air conditioners. Each time, the units sold out in hours. People put booties on their dogs to keep the scorching asphalt from burning their paws. Local outdoor pools all closed, because it was too hot for lifeguards to work or for guests to spend much time out of the water.

On Sunday, at 103 degrees, I brought my eight pet chickens inside and put them in the basement bathroom. A few of my hens were panting rapidly, gasping for air. Since then, I’ve heard from a number of people whose chickens died despite their efforts to keep them cool. (My own chickens have taken to their new accommodations well, all things considered. I found three fresh eggs in my shower on Monday.)

Unprecedented is becoming the norm. In less than a year, there’s been a full week where I couldn’t leave my house because of the smoke from nearby wildfires, an ice storm that left thousands of Oregonians without power, and now this heat wave. It’s only June.

One of my neighbors saw a raccoon come to their pond for a sip of water in broad daylight. Sparrows and hummingbirds, normally wary of humans, have hopped or buzzed within a few feet of me to get to a puddle. It seems as though the plants, animals and insects that for so long have thrived here might not be able to survive at all in 20 years. We’re already seeing native plants flowering earlier and old-growth trees dying off. The needles on the native cedars in my yard are parched and drooping.

The Pacific Northwest I remember from childhood is a green and magical place where water squeezes out of moss when you step on it and I could sleep with my windows open all summer long. A hot day meant a trip to the beach, not hiding with the lights off and curtains closed in the basement.

It is easy to conjure ways to make the ever-warming Pacific Northwest more livable for humans. Coastal areas can practice “managed retreats,” so people’s homes no longer lie on flood plains. We can repair asphalt that ruptured in the heat and put new wires on cable cars. More families can put air conditioning in their homes.

But for the plants and creatures that live outside, all we can do is triage.

On the hottest days, I woke up at 6 a.m. to water the browning native plants in my yard. People hustled to put out bird baths and insect waterers and to try to keep them full. One Portlander on Reddit described hosing down a coyote pup that was overheating in the yard. There are no systemic fixes for all the wildlife, trees and plants that have made this region what it is — or what it was.

Read more:

Charlie Warzel: It’s not the heat. It’s the existential dread.

Geraldine DeRuiter: I have known hot places. The Northwest heat wave feels apocalyptic.

Paul Waldman: The country is on fire, and the biggest obstacle to action is the GOP

Tove Danovich: The smoke covering the West has me and my chickens bunking together. Is this the new normal?