Extreme weather is upending lives in the West. 'You walk around with this vague sense of terror.'

Embers blow across a field as the Sugar Fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire, burns in Doyle, California, on Friday, July 9. Record heat is causing problems across the western U.S.

Embers blow across a field as the Sugar Fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire, burns in Doyle, California, on Friday, July 9. Record heat is causing problems across the western U.S. (Noah Berger, Associated Press)



ATLANTA — It was the heat, in part, that pushed Eric Beck to leave Los Angeles.

He had built a successful career in the TV and film industry over 42 years, and he said it was a grueling decision. But as a 65-year-old with diabetes and an elevated risk for health complications in the city's more frequent heatwaves, he chose to go.

He moved to Portland, Oregon, three years ago. Beck felt it was a smart decision given the city's historically temperate climate, and one that is relatively insulated from the worst effects of climate change.

This summer has wiped that illusion away.

In ways big and small, the effects of climate change — which scientists have long warned will worsen without swift efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions — are upending lives across the U.S. Many residents of the West who spoke with CNN say that they are frightened by the inescapable heat, the explosive wildfires and the unrelenting drought.

Most of all, they fear how much worse things could get for them and their children.

'You were walking into a furnace'

Beck says he's been concerned about climate change for a long time. But his fear intensified after September, when deadly wildfires destroyed homes and filled the air in cities across the West with smoke.

At one point late last year, Portlanders were breathing some of the most-polluted air on the planet.

Then last month, an unrelenting heatwave sent temperatures in the city spiking as high as 116 degrees Fahrenheit. For three consecutive days, Portland shattered all-time temperature records, alongside other Northwest cities.

A heat event of this magnitude in the Northwest — which likely killed hundreds of people in the U.S. and Canada — would have been "virtually impossible" without the huge amounts of heat-trapping gases humans have pumped into the atmosphere, scientists say.

To stay safe, Beck said he canceled all of the handyman jobs he had lined up. For more than 72 hours, he barely left his apartment, save brief trips to get food or to let his dogs outside.

Beck said the heat felt like "you were walking into a furnace." Diabetes can compromise the body's ability to cool itself down, and he said it was physically painful to be outside for more than a few minutes.

Unlike many in Portland, he was fortunate to have air conditioning in his apartment.

Still, the experience left him shaken.

"That fear I felt last year is even worse this year," Beck said. "You walk around with this vague sense of terror."

A struggle to stay cool

This summer's extreme heat and drought have added a new layer of anxiety to Hannah McGuire's work. Working as a nanny and a dogsitter in Salt Lake City, McGuire said she used to be able to take the kids on kayaking and swimming trips to reservoirs around the city.

Not this summer.

With nearly the entire state of Utah in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought" — the two most severe categories — she said reservoirs where they used to cool off and play are alarmingly low. Others are choked by algae blooms. With water restrictions in place, she can't turn a sprinkler on to let the kids cool off.

Even trips to the playground now have a tinge of danger: The equipment burns their skin.

"Today, I took them to a park and they just ended up sitting under a tree," McGuire told CNN last week. "They don't even have the energy to run around."

On June 15, Salt Lake City hit 107 degrees, tying its all-time record high. The average high temperature in Salt Lake City in June was 9.5 degrees hotter than normal, according to the National Weather Service. It's been 5.2 degrees warmer during July.

"It's kind of scary to live in a place where you can't be outside comfortably in the daylight," she added.

Dry grass, feasting grasshoppers, and cattle sell-offs

The people whose livelihoods are tied to the land have been hit the hardest by the extremes.

Lisa Matovich and her husband, who are ranchers in Grass Range, Montana, say high temperatures and persistent drought have decimated the grass that their 400 cattle eat.

The average temperature in nearby Lewistown, Montana, was more than 6 degrees above normal in June and July, and nearly half of the state is in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought.

Most years they are able to grow enough hay to bale 800 tons for their cattle, she said. This year, with little rain or snow and swarms of voracious grasshoppers feasting on what little grass is left, she says they will bale just 10 tons.

With other farmers' yields down, Matovich says that a ton of hay now costs between $250 and $300, up from around $100 last year, adding to the financial pinch she says many farmers in her area are feeling.

Matovich said they have around 700 tons of hay banked from last year and do not expect to have to sell off their cattle. But she fears that many of their neighbors — including her cousin's business — may not be able to survive the drought much longer.

"It's really financially devastating for a lot of people," she said.

'It's just tinder waiting to be set off'

Like millions of other Californians, Tracyann Thomas has had close calls with wildfires in the past.

In November of 2018, the single mom and her two teenage boys were forced to evacuate their Agoura Hills home for five days, as the Woolsey Fire scorched thousands of acres nearby in Southern California.

The flames spared Thomas' home, but the experience — along with the countless times she says her family has been forced to inside as wildfire smoke fouled the air — have heightened her fear about what the rest of this summer and fall may hold.

On her walks around Cheeseboro Canyon, Thomas has been alarmed by how dry and brown the vegetation is. Last month, fire officials warned that plant moisture levels in the Los Angeles area have rarely been lower than they are now.

Already, fires have burned more than twice as much land in California than was burned at this point last year, well before what is typically the peak of the state's fire season.

"This is a constant reality of our environment — it's just tinder waiting to be set off," she said.

Lately, her 17-year-old son has been pushing her to get a fire safe in preparation for the next evacuation. And as she thinks about the future, she says her greatest fear is for her children and the climate threats they may face in the years to come.

"I didn't think of that when I was 17," Thomas said. "This is their reality."

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Drew Kann

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