A 30-year heat wave bakes the West; Utah could break triple-digit records

Sunrise over the Wasatch Mountains, taken from West Jordan. Colored red by the smoke from Oregon wildfires.

Sunrise over the Wasatch Mountains, taken from West Jordan. Colored red by the smoke from Oregon wildfires. (Heather Kelly, KSL NewsRadio)



SALT LAKE CITY — Northern Utah has seen 17 days of triple-digit heat so far this summer. The state's record of 100-degree days in one year is 21. And there's a good chance Utah could tie or surpass that number this year, said KSL TV meteorologist Grant Weyman.

A string of thunderstorms this week will give us a slight break from the 100 and above temperatures. But Utah is still above the average heat high for this time of year.

The hot days in Utah aren't expected to go away as drought conditions worsen. Salt Lake City experienced the hottest June on record, according to the National Weather Service.

The average temperature in June was 80.2 degrees, which is 3 degrees hotter than the previous record in June 2016.

The Utah heat isn't unique

Utah's heat and drought aren't isolated events. The Associated Press reports Western states are baking as a result of hotter summers, low soil moisture and dreadful droughts.

Within the last 30 days, 380 all-time heat records have been broken across the nation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA data shows the average temperature in the West rose 2.7 degrees between 1991 and 2020, which is faster than the rest of the world.

While 98.7% of Utah is in an extreme drought, nearly 60% of the West is dealing with exceptional or extreme drought conditions, according to the University of Nebraska's drought monitor. Only 1% of states in the West are not experiencing a drought. The percentage of states in a drought is the highest amount the monitor has recorded since its creation 20 years ago.

Additionally, both NOAA and NASA show most of California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Idaho are drier than in 99% of other years.

Current conditions allow for an extended fire season throughout the West, with limited resources to fight the flames.

"The drought we've had this year and the warm temperatures has allowed the fire season to come on hard and really, really early," UC Merced Associate Professor John Abatzoglou told the Associated Press.

Wildfire season in Utah

As of May 17, 2021, Utah fire crews had responded to at least one wildfire a day, according to Jason Curry with the Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands. The first fire was set in January, and since then firefighters have responded to 648 blazes across the state.

At this time last year, Curry said crews responded to 751 wildfires, in contrast to 519. So, compared to July 2021, ignited fires are "not too bad but above average," Curry told KSL NewsRadio on Monday.

And July hasn't been as busy for crews as it has been in previous years. But despite that, Curry said the state has never dealt with such a busy June.

If a big wildfire in Utah were to start, Curry said resources would be slim. Many of Utah's hotshot crews are being deployed to fight bigger fires throughout the West. Most recently, 41 Utah firefighters traveled to Oregon in an effort to help reduce the flames engulfing part of the state.

Over the last few weeks, the state has seen fewer wildfires start than in 2019. Curry credits the public for the reduction in wildfires.

"The efforts to educate the public and to prevent wildfires is paying off," he said.

However, Curry is warning residents not to let their guard down even though July has seen fewer wildfires than normal.

"Keep up the good work," he encouraged residents.

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Saige Miller
    Heather Kelly

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