California braces for record heat even as wildfire smoke keeps windows closed

High temperatures raise fire risk while poor air quality prevents residents from going outdoors amid Covid-19

Record-high temperatures are expected across California for the holiday weekend, increasing fire risk and exacerbating poor air quality for residents yearning to go outside because of the pandemic but forced indoors because of smoke from nearby fires.

As fires continue to burn throughout the state, the National Weather Service (NWS) declared excessive heat watches in the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento starting on Saturday and lasting until Monday. In Los Angeles, where temperatures of 100F to 115F were expected away from the beaches, dangerous heat was declared.

“This is an exceptionally dangerous event, especially considering the holiday weekend and the ongoing pandemic,” warned the NWS forecast office in San Diego. “This event will be hotter than the recent mid-August heat wave. Temperatures this high, and this widespread, are rarely ever seen in this area.”

The NWS also warned of an increased risk of power outages, as more Californians will want to use their air conditioners amid the heat – and it highlighted an increased risk of vegetation fires. “Elevated to briefly critical fire weather conditions can lead to dangerous plume-dominated fire growth,” the forecast reads.

This heatwave strikes as typical air-conditioned public spaces such as malls and libraries remain closed in many locations because of Covid-19. “Those without air conditioning should make preparations now to stay cool,” the NWS said.

For many residents in regions choked by wildfire smoke – many of whom do not have air conditioning – the small respite offered by an open window is no longer an option because of the air quality.

The heatwave comes on the heels of a lightning event that sparked a series of wildfires throughout the state. Since 15 August, nearly 14,000 lightning strikes have ignited 900 wildfires across California that have burned more than 1.5 million acres – 2,344 sq miles – and killed eight.

The excessive heat watches are expected to cool to heat warnings by Wednesday or Thursday next week.