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Millions in the West are still under heat warnings as parched conditions threaten even more wildfires

By Aya Elamroussi, CNN

More than 4 million people remain under heat warnings in parts of the Pacific Northwest as drought conditions could be exacerbated by record high temperatures through the holiday weekend.

As of Friday, 93% of the West is experiencing some form of drought. Add the threat of dry thunderstorms for some areas in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, California and Oregon and that creates the perfect conditions for wildfires to ignite, according to CNN meteorologist Rob Shackelford.

“The risk of dry thunderstorms can spark wildfires, and the fact that so much of the entire West is under a drought, that could lead to wildfires popping up quite easily,” Shackelford said. “It just takes one spark from a power line in some of these places to start.”

But he noted that wind gusts are expected to be high on Friday, which makes taming those potential fires much easier.

A historic heatwave has been searing much of the Pacific Northwest, where more than 20 record high temperatures could be broken through the weekend, Shackelford said.

In Oregon at least 79 people have died from heat-related illnesses, the state medical examiner said in a statement Friday, with 51 deaths in the Portland area attributable to hyperthermia. In Washington state, at least 13 deaths have been attributed to the heat wave in the Seattle area.

In British Columbia, 486 sudden deaths — almost triple the usual number — occurred during the record warm temperatures, the coroner’s office said.

Although it will be less intense than recent days, “triple-digit heat is still likely each afternoon across some interior areas through the holiday weekend and into early next week,” according to the Weather Prediction Center.

In Canada, British Columbia has endured record-high temperatures during which more than 230 deaths had been reported by Wednesday. Officials said they suspect the extreme heat contributed to the significant increase in deaths in a four-day time period, which usually sees nearly 130 death reports.

The heat wave is an example of the climate crisis affecting global weather. Climate change will also make record-breaking heat waves more frequent in the future — and researchers and policy experts say the Pacific Northwest is not prepared

Heat wave fuels wildfire threat

The consistent baking heat and little rain is alarming because it could fuel wildfires. Excessive heat warnings have been extended through the holiday weekend for much of eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana.

“This event will likely be one of the most extreme and prolonged heat waves in the recorded history of the Inland Northwest,” according to the National Weather Service’s office in Spokane, Washington. “Unprecedented heat will not only threaten the health of residents in the Inland Northwest but will make our region increasingly vulnerable to wildfires and intensify the impacts of our ongoing drought,” it said.

“With no rain in the (extended) forecast, fire weather concerns will remain elevated,” according to the National Weather Center in Seattle.

In the Canadian village of Lytton, at least two people have died from a fire that has devastated the village, according to the British Columbia Coroner’s Service.

More than 1,000 people in and around Lytton were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses Wednesday night, British Columbia Premier John Horgan said.

The fire destroyed many homes and structures and several people were unaccounted for, British Columbia Public Safety Minister and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said Thursday at a news conference.

The fire has destroyed more than 6,400 hectares, about 16,000 acres, the British Columbia Wildfire Service said on its website.

Temperatures in the village in British Columbia hit 121 degrees on Tuesday — the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada.

From Friday, June 25 through Thursday, July 1, 719 deaths have been reported to British Columbia’s coroners– three times more than what would normally occur in the province during the same period, according to Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner for the province.

More than 1,000 people in and around Lytton evacuated Wednesday night within a moment’s notice as flames engulfed the area, BC Premier John Horgan said.

“Lytton has been devastated and it will take an extraordinary amount of effort to get that historic location back to what it was,” Horgan said.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Hannah Gard, Monica Garrett, Dave Alsup, Brisa Colon, Sarah Moon, Jon Passantino and Rebekah Riess contributed to this report.

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