In California heatwave, pandemic makes it hard to cool off

By Sharon Bernstein

RANCHO CORDOVA, Calif. (Reuters) – Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down air-conditioned shopping malls and movie theaters, Debera Diaz and her adult son Joshua could have ducked inside to escape the 109 degree Fahrenheit heat that roasted their town near Sacramento last week.

So the pair, who have been living in Debera’s Honda Civic since her divorce and eviction a few months ago, were grateful to find a cooling center in city hall, complete with masks and a showing of the Meryl Streep movie “The Devil Wears Prada.”

“You can’t even go to the library,” said Diaz, 58. “It was really bad.”

The coronavirus pandemic presents vexing challenges for officials trying to protect residents from extreme weather conditions. Many places people usually go are closed, and public cooling centers like the one in Rancho Cordova can only accept half the normal number of people because of physical distancing requirements. Staying with relatives or friends is also difficult because of health concerns.

At the same time, however, officials worry that fears of catching the virus will keep some vulnerable people from seeking shelter from extreme heat, or even seeking out evacuation centers when wildfire threatens.

Protecting residents from extreme conditions is an issue that increasingly confronts cities and counties across the United States, as storms, heat and wildfire force thousands to seek refuge. Many experts are even more concerned about how to shelter vulnerable residents from extreme cold should the pandemic still be raging in the winter.

“It’s changed how we approach this as a city,” Rancho Cordova Mayor David Sander said of the pandemic. In previous years, churches and nonprofits opened their doors to people seeking shelter, but now many are either closed or unable to help, he said.

The city’s cooling center, set up in a large meeting room, can only accommodate 10 people before workers have to open an adjoining room, Sander said. That is half or less than its usual capacity.

The city is not taking the temperatures of everyone who comes in but asks anyone with a self-reported fever to stay away.

Among those most likely to suffer from extreme weather are people without homes like the Diazes, and the elderly on fixed incomes who might not have air conditioning or, if they do, may feel that they can’t afford to use it, said Mary Jo Flynn-Nevins, the emergency operations coordinator for Sacramento County.

Public agencies opened eight cooling centers in the county during last week’s heatwave, each able to accommodate between 10 and 40 people, she said.

With more than 5,500 people homeless in Sacramento County last year, and around 225,000 elderly, space for residents to shelter from harsh weather can quickly run short, Flynn-Nevins said.

Statewide, cooling centers were opened in 24 of California’s 58 counties, according to the California Department of Emergency Services.

The administration of Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom did not respond to requests for comment about the challenges of offering respite from the heat during the pandemic. But the state has encouraged residents to limit their use of electricity to avoid overtaxing the power grid and prompting blackouts.

When the temperature neared 100 Fahrenheit in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, Magdalay Arriola went to the East Valley Adult Center, where she sat with a water bottle and portable lunch cooler, reading a book.

About 10 people, 6 feet apart and wearing masks, sat in the air-conditioned room. Employees in protective suits cleaned tables and chairs with disinfectant.

“The AC is not working in my house, and I was getting really overheated,” said Arriola, 55. “Hopefully this is safe.”

Her worry that the cooling center may not be safe from COVID-19 is common, said Chad Carter, a spokesman for the Red Cross. People also worry they may spread or contract the virus if they seek shelter with friends or family.

But they also must recognize the dangers of soaring temperatures, which include heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

“Extreme heat is a risk just like COVID-19,” he said. “Extreme heat can be deadly.”

(Additional reporting by Lucy Nicholson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Heatwave and high winds threaten to reignite Australian wildfires

By Paulina Duran

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Swathes of southeast Australia were bracing on Thursday for a days-long heatwave that threatens to stoke bushfires that have been burning for months.

As firefighters and residents prepared for the heightened danger, the New South Wales (NSW) state government launched a six-month inquiry to examine both the causes of and response to this season’s deadly wildfires.

“We don’t want to waste the opportunity to take on board any recommendations we need to adopt ahead of the bushfire season this year … as we approach summer of 2021,” said Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of NSW.

NSW state has been one of the hardest hit by bushfires, which started earlier than usual in September. The blazes have burnt out more than 11.7 million hectares (117,000 sq km) across Australia’s most populous states, killing at least 33 people and about 1 billion animals, and destroying 2,500 homes.

Fire danger warnings were issued on Thursday for several areas in South Australia state, where temperatures were forecast to exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and winds were expected to reach 35 kph (22 mph).

Among them was Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination that has already been razed by fires that killed two people. After a day of heat, by early evening no new fires had emerged.

“On Friday, there will also be hot and windy conditions, however, some parts of the Island may experience rainfall from mid-morning,” the state’s fire service said.

“A total Fire Ban is in place on the island, with a rating of SEVERE.”

In Victoria state, authorities issued a watch and act warning for people near Bendoc in the Snowy Mountains close to the New South Wales border.

“Don’t wait, leaving now is the safest option – conditions may change and get worse very quickly. Emergency Services may not be able to help you if you decide to stay,” emergency services officials said.

The severe heat and high winds are forecast to hit NSW and Victoria states from Friday threatening to spark new life into some of the 87 fires burning across the three states or create new blazes.

Australia’s dangerous summer weather has largely been driven by temperature variations in the Indian Ocean, which the country’s weather bureau said on Thursday were likely to keep conditions hot and dry until March.

Martin Webster, a NSW Rural Fire Service officer, highlighted the strains facing the state’s 74,000-strong volunteer brigade as the huge fires continued to burn.

“Our local crews have been actively involved in firefighting since August and we are still long way from being out of the woods, so we are talking six or seven months of firefighting,” Webster told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Here are Thursday’s key events in the bushfire crisis:

* There were five fires burning in the state of South Australia, 64 in New South Wales and 18 in Victoria.

* Berejiklian, firefighting officials and family of three U.S. firefighters killed in a plane crash in remote bushland last week, attended a memorial service where members of the aviation community paid their respects.

* Three firefighters who were trying to contain blazes in the Orroral Valley near Canberra were reported injured after a tree fell on their truck on Wednesday night, the ABC reported. Officials in the capital did not immediately return requests for information.

* Rating agency Moody’s on Wednesday warned increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters related to climate change would likely put at risk the ‘AAA’ credit rating of NSW.

(Reporting by Paulina Duran in Sydney; Additional reporting by Colin Packham and Melanie Burton.; Editing by Jane Wardell, Lincoln Feast and Alison Williams)

Devastating bushfire conditions to worsen in Australia

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Rising temperatures, lightning strikes and erratic winds are set to fan wildfires in Australia in the week ahead, officials said on Sunday, with emergency crews already working day and night to contain more than 130 blazes.

The state of New South Wales, where 367 homes have been lost in the past week, reported 56 fires burning with about half yet to be contained, fire services said.

A heatwave forecast for this week is expected to heighten dangers in the state. The fires have already claimed four lives across the country’s east coast.

“We are expecting to see a worsening of conditions, particularly as we start heading into Tuesday and then continuing through Wednesday and Thursday again,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Crews from interstate and New Zealand were expected to bolster firefighters’ efforts from Monday in combating the blazes and to relieve volunteers.

Australia’s bushfires are a common and deadly threat but the early outbreak this year in the southern spring has already claimed several lives and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Authorities in Queensland issued emergency warnings for part of the state, where nearly 80 fires were burning on Sunday and as the region braced for more hot and dry weather in the week ahead.

“Until we get significant rainfall, the fires will not go out,” Queensland’s acting Fire and Emergency Commissioner, Mike Wassing, said in televised remarks.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sam Holmes)

Typhoon bears down on Tokyo and northeast Japan coast, flights disrupted

Passersby using an umbrella struggle against a heavy rain and wind as Typhoon Shanshan approaches Japan's mainland in Tokyo, Japan August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

TOKYO (Reuters) – A powerful typhoon was approaching Tokyo on Wednesday evening, threatening Pacific coastal regions to the northeast of the capital with heavy rains and high winds, leading to flight cancellations and evacuation advisories in some areas.

The center of typhoon “Shanshan”, a Chinese girl’s name, was located 200 km (125 miles) southeast of Tokyo as of 9:00 p.m. (8.00 a.m. ET), and is expected to move north along the east coast of Japan’s main island on Thursday, possibly snarling the morning rush hour.

The Japan Meteorological Agency warned that Tokyo and surrounding areas could get as much as 300 mm (12 inches) of rain in the 24 hours to 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, with winds gusting as high as 180 kmh (111 mph).

Shanshan is expected to move slowly, meaning heavy rain may fall in one area for an extended period, the agency said.

The city of Mobara, east of Tokyo, issued an evacuation advisory for its entire population of about 90,000 people.

Several other municipalities near Tokyo also issued evacuation advisories for some residents, bringing the total number of people affected to more than 100,000, according to public broadcaster NHK.

NHK also said airlines had canceled more than 160 flights.

The western Japan regions hit by deadly floods in July look set to be spared any damage from the typhoon as it winds its way up the northeastern coast.

Japan has experienced one weather disaster after another since the start of July, including a record-breaking heatwave that saw temperatures surge to 41.1 Celsius (106 Fahrenheit) and had killed at least 132 people as of August 5.

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Michael Perry and Hugh Lawson)

Wildfire burns in Portugal for fourth day, 1,150 firefighters mobilize

A helicopter drops water on a fire near small village of Monchique, Portugal August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) – More than 1,150 firefighters struggled to put out a fire in Portugal’s southern Algarve tourist region on Monday, which injured 25 people overnight and led to the evacuation of homes and hotels.

The fire, which started on Friday, grew over the weekend during a heatwave sweeping large parts of Europe.

A car passes next to a fire near small village of Monchique, Portugal August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

A car passes next to a fire near small village of Monchique, Portugal August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

Temperatures have started to fall from the peak of nearly 47 degrees Celsius, but it remains very hot in most of the country. Emergency services added a further 350 firefighters to combat the flames overnight.

Twenty four people were treated for light burns and smoke inhalation while one person suffered more serious burns.

People were evacuated from the area but Joao Furtado, 60, was forced to hide in a water tank to escape the flames as his house burned down, according to his sister-in-law.

“He was panicking because he was trapped in the house,” said Maria Helena Furtado. “There was fire everywhere and he couldn’t get out.”

Civil protection authorities said smoke was making it difficult for firefighting planes to access the area but nine helicopters were flying. There were 350 fire engines involved in the effort.

The fire is burning in the hills above the Algarve coast, an area popular with tourists for its hot springs. The smoke could be seen from the coast.

Antonio Monteiro, head of the Caldas de Monchique Spa Resort, one of the region’s best known hotels, said: “We had to evacuate all hotel guests and we don’t have any information about when we will reopen.”

Another hotel in the region, the Macdonald, was also shut.

Portugal’s biggest wildfire killed 114 people last year and it has since reinforced emergency services in the center of the country where the worst fires usually break out.

Until last week Portugal’s summer had been unusually cold and wet.

(Writing by Axel Bugge; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Crews fight dozens of California wildfires amid July heatwave

Los Padres National Forest firefighters watch as helicopters work on the northeast flank of the Whittier fire near Hot Spring Canyon outside Cachuma Lake, California, U.S. July 11, 2017. Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire/Handout via REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Crews battled dozens of wildfires raging across California on Wednesday, gaining ground on several of the more destructive blazes as forecasters warned that hot, dry, tinderbox conditions would persist across the U.S. West.

In Northern California, by late Wednesday afternoon firefighters had cut containment lines around more than half of the so-called Wall Fire, which has damaged or destroyed more than 100 structures, 44 of them homes, since it broke out last week.

Evacuation orders in the path of the Wall fire were reduced to warnings on Wednesday but according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection more than 600 homes remained threatened.

The blaze has displaced 4,000 people and charred some 5,800 acres of tall grass and chaparral in Butte County, north of Sacramento.

In Southern California, meanwhile crews had managed to contain 65 percent of the Alamo Fire, which has blackened nearly 29,000 acres northeast of Santa Maria in San Luis Obispo County.

Some 200 people remained under evacuation orders because of the blaze, which has destroyed two structures

The Whittier Fire in Santa Barbara County forced the evacuation of thousands of campers near Lake Cachuma, including some who left behind their trailers in the rush.

Dozens of residents were also evacuated when the fire broke out on Saturday, officials said.

By Wednesday, firefighters had contained 48 percent of the blaze, up from 25 percent a day earlier. The fire has burned nearly 12,000 acres.

As of Wednesday evening 47 large fires were burning out of control across the U.S. West, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.

So far this year, more than twice as much land mass in California has been charred by flames compared to the same time last year, said Heather Williams, a Forestry and Fire Protection spokeswoman.

Temperatures in the region will top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) this week, with only scattered showers to possibly quell some flames, said meteorologist Brian Hurley of the National Weather Service.

At a local assistance center, resident Carolyn Opalenik said her house had been destroyed.

“It’s all gone. We have pictures, and it’s all gone,” she told the Chico Enterprise-Record newspaper.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Tom Brown)

Firefighters hold ‘sleeping giant’ wildfire in check in California

Firefighters protecting property from a wildfire

By Alex Dobuzinskis

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A stubborn wildfire stoked by triple-digit temperatures raged for a sixth day outside Santa Barbara in coastal Southern California on Monday as crews worked to keep the blaze some have called a “sleeping giant” in check, officials said.

So far, the so-called Sherpa Fire burning in chaparral and tall grass about 20 miles (32 km) northwest of Santa Barbara has led to the evacuation of hundreds of residents from ranches and campgrounds in the hilly area.

Authorities said they expected to begin allowing homeowners and farm laborers back into those areas on Wednesday, though county health and environment officials issued an air quality warning for smoke and falling ash from the fire.

The tally of acreage burned held at nearly 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) since late Sunday, said Jim Schwarber, a spokesman for the multi-agency team combating the blaze.

The fire, which broke out last Wednesday in the Los Padres National Forest and was 54 percent contained by Monday, has been called a sleeping giant due to the triple-digit temperatures and dense, bone-dry brush in the area that has not burned in decades, he said.

“We’re working hard to keep that giant contained so it doesn’t wake up,” Schwarber said.

So far, the blaze has destroyed only one building – a water-treatment center at a campground, he said.

But it has threatened more than 200 structures and forced officials to close the 101 Freeway near the Pacific Coast periodically as flames crept to within less than a mile of the shore.

More than 1,900 firefighters were assigned to the blaze.

“Red flag warnings” were also posted for the mountains around Los Angeles on Monday as two fires erupted in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest north of the city.

One blaze, dubbed the Reservoir Fire, had consumed some 1,500 acres by late afternoon and prompted the evacuation of about 70 homes. The second blaze a few miles away devoured about 1,000 acres, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Lulu Castillo said.

About 160 miles farther south, firefighters battled flames roaring through dry brush and chaparral near the Mexican border for a second day, keeping the desert community of Potrero under evacuation.

That fire, about 50 miles southeast of San Diego, had charred more than 1,900 acres and was just 5 percent contained on Monday, California fire officials reported.

Two states away, the 6-day-old Dog Head Fire in central New Mexico has charred more than 17,000 acres and was 9 percent contained after destroying 24 homes.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Grebler and Paul Tait)

California power grid prepares for heatwave, possible natgas shortage

By Scott DiSavino

(Reuters) – California will have its first test of plans to keep the lights on this summer following the shutdown of the key Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility as temperatures in the Los Angeles area are forecast to hit triple digits this week.

With record-setting heat and air conditioning demand expected in Southern California, the state’s power grid operator issued a so-called “flex alert,” urging consumers to conserve energy to help prevent rotating power outages – which could occur regardless.

Electricity demand is expected to rise during the unseasonable heatwave on Monday and Tuesday, with forecast system-wide use expected to top 45,000 megawatts, said the California Independent System Operator (ISO), which manages electricity flow through the state. That compares with a peak demand of 47,358 MW last year and the all-time high of 50,270 MW set in July 2006.

That could put stress on the power grid, particularly with the shut-in of Aliso Canyon, following a massive leak at the underground storage facility in October. The facility, in the San Fernando Valley, is the second largest storage field in the western United States, according to federal data, and therefore crucial for power generation.

All customers, including homes, hospitals, oil refineries and airports are at risk of losing power at some point this summer because a majority of electric generating stations in California use gas as their primary fuel. In April, millions of electric customers in Southern California were warned they could suffer power outages on up to 14 days this summer due to the closure.

The ISO said it was working with gas and power utilities and state energy agencies to mitigate potential reliability issues related to the limited operations at Aliso Canyon.

“We are confident we have a strong plan in place to meet the operational challenges posed by the upcoming hot temperatures,” ISO CEO Steve Berberich said, adding that consumer conservation efforts would be key.

ROTATING OUTAGES

Since the energy crisis of 2000-2001, the ISO has imposed short rotating outages in 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2015, mostly related to unexpected transmission line or power plant outages during periods of unusually high demand.

Southern California Gas (SoCalGas), the nation’s biggest gas distribution utility and owner of Aliso Canyon, detected the leak in October and plugged it in February.

SoCalGas is a unit of California energy company Sempra Energy.

State regulators will not allow SoCalGas to inject fuel into the facility until the company inspects all of its 114 wells.

Aliso Canyon is the biggest of four SoCalGas storage fields. It provides service to the region’s 17 gas-fired power plants, hospitals, refineries, and other key parts of California’s economy.

In the summer (April through October), SoCalGas strives to completely fill 86.2-billion cubic feet (bcf) Aliso Canyon to prepare for the upcoming winter heating season when gas demand peaks.

State regulators, however, ordered the company in January to reduce the amount of working gas in Aliso Canyon to just 15 bcf and use that fuel to reduce the risk of gas curtailments and power interruptions this summer.

Unlike some other gas transmission systems that can store large amounts of so-called linepack gas in pipelines, like PG&E Corp in northern California, SoCalGas cannot function with only pipeline or storage supplies.

That makes storage fields much more critical for SoCalGas and the 21 million residents it supports.

SoCalGas uses Aliso Canyon to provide gas to power generators that cannot be met with pipeline flows alone on about 10 days per month during the summer, according to state agencies.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Joseph Radford)

Heat Waves, Droughts More Likely To Mix

Scientists have built the case that heat waves and droughts are now more likely to mix in the United States than at any point in the nation’s history.

“Despite an apparent hiatus in rising temperature and no significant trend in droughts, we show a substantial increase in concurrent droughts and heatwaves across most parts of the United States,” Omid Mazdiyasni and Amir AghaKouchak, who study climate and hydrology trends at UC Irvine, wrote in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study shows that in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010, heat waves and droughts took place simultaneously more frequently than between 1960 and 1980.  In most cases, the two overlapped more than 50% more during the latter period of time.

States along the southern portion of the nation faced the most occurrences of the combined factors.

The study also examined damage to society and overall health from the combination of the heat waves and drought.  They cited a situation in 2003 where Europe was struck with the combo and it lead directly or indirectly to 15,000 deaths in France.

Middle East Heatwave Kills 42 in Egypt

A heatwave scorching Egypt has left 42 people dead.

Egyptian officials said 21 people died on Sunday and 19 more died on Monday.  They added most of the dead were elderly people although they confirmed one German national, patients at a psychiatric hospital and some prisoners also died from the heat.

Temperatures in parts of the northern half of the country reached 120 and in the lower part of the nation topped 115.   The capital city of Cairo hit 105.

The heatwave has also caused power outages.  The Cairo subway was shut down due to power loss and many neighborhoods are getting one hour of power a day.

The heat wave is also causing problems in other nations.

In Beirut, Lebanon, which is on the Mediterranean coast, temperatures are in the 90’s but with 50% or greater humidity the conditions are almost unbearable.

“We had electricity from 3am to 6am last night, and the power comes on one hour during the day,” said Hasan, who lives in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where power cuts have been especially dire during the heatwave. “Officials sit in their offices with electricity.”

On Friday, the heat and humidity in Bandar Mahshahr, Iran, combined to give a feeling of a temperature of 165.

“That was one of the most incredible temperature observations I have ever seen and it is one of the most extreme readings ever in the world,” said AccuWeather Meteorologist Anthony Sagliani in a statement.