Biden will meet with Western governors on the growing threat from wildfires.


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July 30, 2021, 11:51 a.m. ET
Biden will meet with Western governors on the growing threat from wildfires.
A firefighter watching a prescribed burn as the Dixie Fire flared up through Quincy, Calif., on Monday.Credit...Jungho Kim for The New York Times

President Biden is set to meet virtually on Friday with governors from seven Western states, where devastating wildfires have grown more severe in recent years as climate change leads to a hotter and drier landscape. They will discuss how the federal government can help states with prevention, preparedness and emergency response efforts.

More than 80 large fires were burning across the country on Friday, scorching nearly 1.7 million acres across 13 states. The largest, the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon and the Dixie Fire in Northern California, have both been described by fire officials as burning earlier and more intensely than is usual for this time of year, because of drought conditions and record heat across the region.

This week, the governors of California and Nevada, touring the wreckage of the Tamarack Fire, which has charred some 68,000 acres across the two states, pleaded for more assistance, saying that federal firefighting efforts have been underfunded. The federal government controls a significant portion of land across the American West, so it plays a major role in managing fire.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California will be among those meeting with Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with Govs. Kate Brown of Oregon, Greg Gianforte of Montana, Mark Gordon of Wyoming, Jay Inslee of Washington, Brad Little of Idaho and Tim Walz of Minnesota, White House officials said.

The administration on Friday is expected to announce two new groups focused on reducing the damage from wildfires and addressing climate change. The first will study long-term strategies, such as prescribed burns, that can reduce the catastrophic devastation of wildfires. The second will focus on combating the health effects of extreme weather on vulnerable communities, White House officials said.

The Biden administration’s approach to the wildfires that are intensifying across the American West stands in stark contrast to how the previous administration addressed a worsening crisis. Former President Donald J. Trump did not acknowledge the role of climate change in wildfires, which are growing larger, spreading faster and reaching higher.

Biden will meet with Western governors on the growing threat from wildfires.
Plans for a firefighting operation for the Dixie Fire near Quincy, Calif., on Monday.Credit...Jungho Kim for The New York Times

Besieged by what is shaping up to be yet another catastrophic wildfire season, the governors of California and Nevada intensified calls this week for more federal firefighting assistance, noting that the challenge in the West will only worsen with drought and climate change.

Touring the wreckage of the Tamarack Fire, which has charred some 68,000 acres across the two states, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California and Gov. Steve Sisolak of Nevada, both Democrats, said on Wednesday that the federal government controls most of the forested land in their states, but federal firefighting has been underfunded.

“We need to disabuse ourselves that we can continue to do what we’ve done,” said Mr. Newsom, meeting with firefighters near Gardnerville, Nev. “The world is radically changing because of climate change — if you don’t believe in science, believe your own damned eyes.”

Limited resources have prompted the U.S. Forest Service to allow some large wilderness fires, including the Tamarack Fire near Topaz Lake, a reservoir on the border of the two states, to burn this summer. Ignited by lightning on July 4, the fire has cut a 106-square-mile swath through the two states, destroying some two dozen structures and blackening an area larger than the city of Reno.

State and local firefighting resources have been called on to protect nearby communities and to support federal firefighters through mutual aid agreements, a common — and increasingly costly — arrangement. The federal government manages about 60 percent of the fire-prone wildlands in California and about 80 percent in Nevada, the governors noted.

“I want to reach out to the federal government and say: We need some more help,” Mr. Sisolak said. “We need to hire more firefighters, and we need a more federally orchestrated plan and response to these fires because it’s not stopping, folks. It’s continuing, and it’s continuing stronger than it was before.”

On Thursday, the Tamarack Fire was 59 percent contained, and evacuation orders for about 2,000 people had been lifted. But scores of other blazes continued to rage in a season that has already started far earlier than usual.

In Oregon, the Bootleg Fire, the largest so far this year, has been burning for weeks, consuming more than 400,000 acres, and in California, the Dixie Fire in the Lassen National Forest, exploded overnight to more than 220,000 acres.

Scientists say climate change and a record drought have made Western wildfires far larger and more destructive. Mr. Newsom said he and other governors in the West plan to ask the White House this week for more firefighters and more federal assistance.

The governors of California, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming plan to meet virtually with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday to discuss fire prevention, according to Mr. Newsom’s office. The meeting is the president’s second in two months.

Mr. Biden promised in June to raise pay for federal firefighters and increase state and local grants for wildfire resilience. The bipartisan infrastructure bill he negotiated with Congress also includes $50 billion for “climate resilience” to shore up roads, ports and bridges against the effects of climate change, drought, floods, wildfires and extreme weather conditions.

The two governors in Nevada on Wednesday said the need was urgent. California has already had nearly 5,700 wildfires this year.

“The hots are getting hotter, and the dries are getting drier,” Mr. Newsom said. “It requires a radically different approach to governance and building partnerships at a different level than we ever have seen before.”

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Biden will meet with Western governors on the growing threat from wildfires.
The Dixie Fire burning near Taylorsville, Calif., on Thursday. The fire, the state’s largest this year, has consumed more than 220,000 acres.Credit...David Swanson/Reuters

A quarter of the U.S. population was roasting in extreme temperatures on Friday, with excessive heat warnings and advisories from the National Weather Service extending across two dozen states into the weekend.

Heat warnings and advisories mean that temperatures are forecast to be dangerous enough to trigger potential health problems, such as heat stroke, that could be fatal, the agency said.

Many cities are forecast to reach the upper 90s or lower 100s on Friday, with the heat index — a measurement that combines heat and humidity — soaring into the triple digits.

Parts of the northern Gulf Coast of Florida will feel like 113 degrees, and the heat in Topeka, Kan., will feel more like 112. Portions of the Pacific Northwest will also see excessive heat — though not as bad as it got a month ago, when hundreds died across the region — with temperatures in Spokane, Wash., potentially reaching as high as 107 on Friday and 108 on Saturday.

In response to the heat, Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon declared a state of emergency in 23 counties where temperatures could climb over 100.

The heat this weekend won’t help firefighters battling blazes across much of the West. The Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon remains the country’s largest wildfire at more than 410,000 acres, according to The New York Times’s wildfire tracker. The Dixie Fire, California’s largest this year, has burned more than 220,000 acres.

Cooler temperatures are expected across much of the United States by early next week, the Weather Service said.

While the heat will be the main danger for most this weekend, pockets of the Southwest will be under a flash flood watch, meteorologists said. Monsoon rains are expected in parts of California, Nevada and Arizona.

Farther east, severe storms brought tornadoes to Ohio and New Jersey on Thursday, injuring at least five and damaging several buildings. Calmer conditions are expected through the weekend.

Biden will meet with Western governors on the growing threat from wildfires.
Flash flooding in Carlisle, Ky., overnight led to a woman’s death.Credit...WLEX

A woman in Kentucky was killed in flash flooding during heavy rain overnight that left about 10 people trapped in their homes and sent cars floating down streets, an official said.

The woman, who was not identified, had lived in a trailer near a creek that overflowed, said Calvin Denton, the emergency management director for Carlisle, Ky., about 40 miles northwest of Lexington.

“The water had come up so quick that it washed the back end of her trailer away, and she was trapped in it,” Mr. Denton said. “We knew there was a possibility of rain, but nothing like this. I’ve lived here for 76 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Mr. Denton said that within about an hour, parts of the area were flooded by about six feet of water. Crews had rescued about 10 people trapped in their houses early Friday, and fast-rising water had entered 25 to 35 houses, he said.

“A lot of the stuff that’s damaged can be replaced,” he said. “But you lose a person, that can’t be replaced. It got everyone in shock.”

Most flash floods are the result of slow-moving thunderstorms, or back-to-back thunderstorms over the same area, according to the National Weather Service. Flooding usually happens within six hours of the storm, and the places that are most at risk include urban areas with pavement that can’t absorb water, low-lying areas, rivers and streams.

On average, 88 people die each year in the United States as a result of flash flooding, more than from tornadoes, hurricanes or lightning, according to the Weather Service.

The woman in Kentucky was at least the fifth death this month in the United States as a result of flash flooding. At least three people died after a flash flood in Colorado last week, and a female camper was killed after a flood in the Grand Canyon.

As the world warms, the United States and other parts of the world have seen an increase in the frequency of extreme rainstorms that lead to flash floods. And the frequency is likely to increase as warming continues.

Biden will meet with Western governors on the growing threat from wildfires.
Storm damage in Trevose, Pa., on Thursday.Credit...Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer, via Associated Press

At least five injuries were reported and several buildings were damaged on Thursday night after tornadoes touched down in eastern New Jersey and eastern Ohio amid storms throughout the region.

One tornado, moving east at 25 m.p.h., swept through an area near Barnegat Township, N.J., the National Weather Service in Mount Holly reported. Two tornadoes touched down in Jefferson and Harrison Counties, Ohio, leaving behind damaged buildings and power outages, a Jefferson County dispatcher said. No one was injured, he said.

Earlier, the Mount Holly office said forecasters had spotted “tornadic storms” near Trenton, in Mercer County, N.J., and Bucks County, Pa. Forecasters did not immediately confirm whether the storms were tornadoes, but at least five people suffered injuries that were not life-threatening, the authorities in Bensalem, Pa., said.

A police and fire dispatcher in Bucks County, Pa., said people called in reports of building collapses, fallen roofs and downed trees and wires. Authorities responded to a collapse at a car dealership, Bensalem Fire Rescue said on Twitter.

Videos of the car dealership showed parts of the roof caved in and debris scattered around a parking lot as rain lashed the area.

“Roadways are impassable because of debris,” the Fire Department said.

A witness inside the dealership said he heard a loud bang outside before he and his mother hid under a table.

“I just held her in my arms,” he told the television station WPVI, “and then I watched the glass implode and the ceiling fall in and everything kind of caved in.”

Scientists are not yet able to determine whether there is a link between climate change and the frequency or strength of tornadoes. Tornadoes are relatively small, short-lived weather events with a limited data record.

Researchers, however, do say that in recent years tornadoes seem to be occurring in greater “clusters,” and that tornado alley seems to be shifting eastward.

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Biden will meet with Western governors on the growing threat from wildfires.
Power lines in an area burned by the Bootleg Fire near Beatty, Ore., this month.Credit...David Ryder/Reuters

Across the United States, power companies are scrambling to keep up with a barrage of extreme weather from a rapidly warming climate. In the West, that means trying to meet soaring demand for air-conditioning because of record heat, without sparking wildfires made more destructive because of record drought. A desperate tactic pioneered in California, utilities intentionally shutting off power lines to avoid starting fires, has now spread to Oregon and Nevada.

On Wednesday, California’s grid operator asked the state’s 39 million residents to conserve electricity or face rolling power outages, the sixth time it has done so this summer. The Texas power grid operator has forecast that demand will reach a record high over the next week as a heat dome bakes the state.

Nationwide, electric utilities, grid operators and regulators have struggled to adequately prepare for the hazards of global warming, like storm surges that can knock out substations and heat waves that can cause power plants to falter, with many expecting that the biggest threats will not materialize for decades to come.

“It’s fair to say there was this widespread assumption that the impacts of climate change and extreme weather would unfold more gradually, and there would be more time to prepare,” said Alison Silverstein, an energy consultant based in Austin, Texas. “But in the past few years, the entire industry has really been smacked upside the head.”

With rare exceptions, most electricity providers nationwide still don’t conduct detailed climate studies that would help them understand all the ways that increased heat, drought, wildfires or flooding can ravage their power grids, researchers have found.

The consequences are becoming increasingly plain. Last August, California suffered its first widespread blackouts in two decades, leaving 800,000 customers without electricity over two days, after a severe heat wave overwhelmed the grid. This summer, California’s grid operator has warned the state faces the risk of further outages as a relentless drought has sharply reduced water levels in reservoirs and reduced output from the state’s hydroelectric dams.

Biden will meet with Western governors on the growing threat from wildfires.
Brandie Wilkerson of Canada, left, and her teammate, Heather Bansley, found the sand unpleasantly hot for their feet during a training session last week.Credit...Doug Mills/The New York Times

Fifty-seven years ago, when the Summer Games were last held in Tokyo, the average high temperature was about 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and the warmest day was 74.

But the 1964 Olympics were held in the cooler, drier month of October. This time around, the nightly lows in Tokyo are hotter than that previous high of 74. The calendar change is the main culprit, of course.

The International Olympic Committee required that cities bidding for the 2020 Games hold the event between July 15 and Aug. 31, ​​barring “exceptional circumstances.”

It has been more than 20 years since the Olympics have been held outside that time frame. The 2000 Sydney Olympics, held in late September to adjust to weather in the Southern Hemisphere, have been the least-viewed Summer Games in the United States over the past several decades. (Mexico City in 1968 and Seoul in 1988 held the Summer Games in October, too.)

For the time period that Tokyo officials chose to stage the competition, the average high over the past two decades has been 90 degrees Fahrenheit, according to data collected by the Japan Meteorological Agency.

The agency’s data also shows the effect of climate change on summertime temperatures in Tokyo. The average daily high was 79.9 degrees Fahrenheit for the 10 Augusts before the 1964 Summer Games. For the 10 Augusts before the 2021 Games, it was 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Haruo Ozaki, the chairman of the Tokyo Medical Association, said this month that holding the Games in July and August was a serious issue because of the “high risks of heatstroke,” and not just because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Olympic officials have put in place several heat-countering measures across events. At Shiokaze Park on Tokyo Bay, where beach volleyball is being held, organizers cooled off the sand with water from firefighter-grade hoses and rolled out canopies to shade players on the sidelines. Among other measures, organizers also installed electric fans and large-scale misting towers, and a special coating of reflective material that reduces the surface temperature over 85 miles of roads in the city’s center.

No event has felt the heat as intensely as tennis. This year shaped up to be one of the hottest and most uncomfortable tennis tournaments many athletes will ever play. Temperatures reached 90 degrees in the shade when play got underway on Saturday, and they haven’t let up since.

Daniil Medvedev complained about the heat during his tennis match on Wednesday. Another player left her match early in a wheelchair.Credit...Matt Ruby/The New York Times

On Wednesday, Paula Badosa of Spain suffered from heatstroke during her quarterfinal match against Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic and had to leave the match early in a wheelchair. Daniil Medvedev of the Russian Olympic Committee struggled to breathe through the hot and humid conditions during a match against Fabio Fognini of Italy on Wednesday. He told the chair umpire, “I can finish the match, but I can die.” (He did finish.)

Medvedev still managed to win and advanced to the quarterfinals, but he lost to Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain on Thursday.

In response to the conditions, the International Tennis Federation announced that beginning Thursday, tennis matches at the Tokyo Games would start at 3 p.m. local time instead of 11 a.m.

Olympic officials have had an extreme-weather policy in place for tennis, which provides for modifications of play and 10-minute breaks because of temperatures. The policy kicks in once the wet-bulb globe temperature — an index that measures heat stress on the human body — reaches 30.1 degrees Celsius, or about 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

But the heat this year was not unexpected. In 2019, the International Olympic Committee moved the marathon about 500 miles north of Tokyo to the city of Sapporo because of concerns about the heat. (Most competitors in sprinting, however, will embrace the hot weather when those events begin Friday.)

Biden will meet with Western governors on the growing threat from wildfires.
A series of extreme weather events has struck Britain in recent weeks, including torrential rain that led to flash flooding in London on Sunday.Credit...Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

LONDON — A powerful storm named Evert battered parts of Britain on Friday with high winds and torrential rain, the latest in a series of extreme weather events to strike the country in recent weeks.

Volunteer rescue crews reported battling “horrendous conditions” overnight in order to assist yachts near the Isles of Scilly, off the southwest coast of England, where wind gusts of up to 69 miles per hour were recorded by the Met Office, Britain’s national meteorological service.

There were no immediate reports of damage, although the storm’s high winds brought misery to campers in southwestern England, flattening tents and forcing them to cut short their trips.

Weather warnings were in effect until Friday night for parts of eastern England, where torrential rain could disrupt travel and lead to flash flooding, the Met Office said.

The warning system is divided into three levels: Yellow, amber, and red, each with ascending levels of potential risk and impact.

— Met Office (@metoffice) July 30, 2021

In 2015, officials from Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands began naming storms when they met the criteria for an amber or red warning level, in an effort to improve communication about them and to raise awareness.

Evert, which is the third named storm to strike Britain this year, comes after torrential rain caused flash flooding in parts of London twice in recent weeks, most recently on Sunday. A fierce heat wave this month also prompted the Met Office to issue its first-ever extreme heat warning.

Extreme weather events are becoming more common in a warming world. A summer heat wave this month saw Northern Ireland hit its highest temperature on record.

“That’s part of a pattern of our warming climate,” said Dr. Mark McCarthy, a climate information scientist at the Met Office, who added, “The warmer atmosphere in changing climate is also likely to increase the risk of really intense summer rainfall events.”

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At least 80 people were killed with a hundred more missing after a flash flood tore through a village in a Taliban-controlled area of eastern Afghanistan late Wednesday night, Afghan officials said.

The deluge swept away most of the village in the Nuristan Province, destroying around 200 homes, and caught most residents off guard because they were sleeping. By Thursday night, villagers had recovered around 80 bodies but as the search continues, local officials expect the death toll to surpass 200.

“It is wiped out, nothing remains after floods,” said Abdul Naser, a resident of the district who visited the village on Thursday. “No aid has arrived yet, and there are no measures for caskets, coffins and funerals.”

The flash flood is the latest blow for Afghanistan, where fighting between government forces and the Taliban has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in recent months and pushed the country to the brink of a humanitarian crisis, aid agencies say.

Floods in northern and eastern Afghanistan are not uncommon this time of year. In August last year, flooding in Charikar, a city on the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains, in northern Afghanistan, killed at least 92 people and injured 108 others.

But the flash flood in Nuristan comes as extreme weather has taken a grim toll around the world this summer and scientists warn that warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions is changing the climate. In recent decades, flash floods have become increasingly common in Afghanistan after widespread deforestation largely destroyed the open woodlands and closed forests that once slowed the flow of water down mountainsides.

Christina GoldbaumFahim Abed and Zabihullah Ghazi

Biden will meet with Western governors on the growing threat from wildfires.
Wildfires destroyed homes near the Mediterranean coastal town of Manavgat, Turkey, on Thursday.Credit...Suat Metin/IHA, via Associated Press

Firefighters in Turkey struggled to contain dozens of wildfires raging for a third day on Friday, as fast-spreading blazes forced popular holiday resorts and dozens of rural areas along the Mediterranean coast to be evacuated.

The fires, which authorities say may have been sparked by arson or human negligence, have killed at least four people and injured roughly 200 others.

As tourists were forced to flee hotels, some on boats as flames licked closer, local residents in rural areas watched the fires burn their homes, kill their livestock and destroy their businesses.

“Our lungs are burning, our future is burning,” Muhittin Bocek, the mayor of Antalya, a resort city, said in a telephone interview from the ravaged town of Manavgat, about 50 miles east along the coast.

The blazes are part of a broader pattern of wildfires afflicting the Mediterranean this summer, with areas in Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Italy and Cyprus also battling fast-moving fires.

They are also the latest in a series of extreme weather events around the planet — from deadly floods in Europe and China to raging fires in the United States, Canada, and Siberia — that scientists believe are linked to changes in the climate resulting from global warming.

Cagatay Tavsanoglu, a biology professor specializing in fire ecology at Hacettepe University in Ankara, Turkey, said fires in the Mediterranean basin are an annual occurrence, but the extent of the blazes this year should serve as an warning.

“Many fires could not be put out, and with the influence of dry winds, burning happened too fast,” Mr. Tavsanoglu said. “It is just the first indications of what climate change would do to the Mediterranean region in the future.”

Elian Peltier and Asmaa al-Omar