High temperatures in the U.S. Southwest and Western U.S. posed a challenge to firefighters in California and Utah, with Texas regulators warning Monday of possible rolling blackouts.
A heat wave developed in California, but winds were weak as firefighters battled a wildfire that threatens a forest of giant redwoods and a small community in Yosemite National Park.
The Washburn Fire on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada mountains had scorched about 5.8 square miles Monday morning, an increase of about 120 acres overnight, according to an update on the incident.
The fire threatened more than 500 mature redwoods in the park’s Mariposa Grove and the nearby community of Wawona, which has been evacuated.
The area in the southern part of Yosemite was closed to visitors, but the rest of the national park remained open.
Grove protected since 1864
Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley have been protected since President Abraham Lincoln signed the law in 1864.
A sprinkler system was set up in the forest to trap the moisture, and there were no reports of serious damage to any named trees, including the 3,000-year-old Grizzly Giant.
“Fortunately, Mariposa Grove has a long history of prescribed burning and studies have shown that these efforts reduce the effects of very serious unwanted fires,” said a statement from the National Park Service.
A heat advisory was issued for the Central Valley stretching below the Sierra Nevadas, while a maximum temperature of 31 C was predicted for Wawona in the fire area.
The giant sequoias, native to only about 70 groves scattered along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, were once considered impervious to flames but have become increasingly vulnerable as wildfires, fueled by an accumulation of undergrowth from a century of firefighting and the impact droughts exacerbated by climate change have become more intense and destructive.
Lightning-induced wildfires in the past two years have killed up to one-fifth of the estimated 75,000 large redwoods, the largest trees by volume and a major draw for tourists.
2 Major Wildfires in Utah
There was no apparent natural spark for the fire that broke out Thursday next to the Washburn Trail in the park. Smoke was reported by visitors walking in the woods.
A fierce wind storm ripped through the forest more than a year ago, knocking over 15 giant redwoods, along with countless other trees.
The fallen trees, along with huge numbers of pines killed by bark beetles, provided ample fuel for the flames.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 35,000 wildfires have burned nearly 1.9 million acres in the U.S. so far in 2022, well above the average for both wildfires and acres burned.
Smoke and ash from a growing wildfire in rural Tooele County in Salt Lake City billowed into Utah on Saturday. By Sunday afternoon, the Jacob City Fire had grown to 15.3 square miles, without containment, officials said.
Elsewhere in Utah, firefighters battled the 32.2-square-mile Halfway Hill Fire in Filmore in heavy winds. Police on Saturday arrested four men who investigators say left a campfire that started the blaze.
Texas Near Energy Reserve Capacity
Meanwhile, on Sunday, for the second time this year, the Texas power grid operator called on state residents to conserve energy, warning of possible rolling blackouts amid forecasts of record high temperatures on Monday.
The state faces a “potential shortage of spare capacity with no market solution available,” the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) said on its website, adding a power emergency warning advising on the potential for progressing blackouts.
ERCOT oversees the power supply of more than 26 million customers.
Temperatures across the state hit records Sunday, with 40.6°C recorded at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport, surpassing a record set in 1909, according to the U.S. National Weather Service (NWS).
High or dangerous heat levels are forecast for much of the state on Monday, with temperatures expected to exceed 37°C.
ERCOT asked residents to conserve electricity between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and said demand could reach 79,934 megawatts (MW) on Monday and 80,104 MW on Tuesday, not far from Monday’s projected 80,200 MW of available reserves. One megawatt can power about 1,000 homes in the US on a typical day, but only about 200 homes on a hot summer day in Texas.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner advised police and fire chiefs in the nation’s fourth-most populous city to “prepare in the event of the state’s electrical grid failure during extreme heat.”
The state grid operator has called for more power from suppliers and has asked large industrial consumers to reduce their energy consumption.