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The Southwest heat wave is creating dangerous wildfire conditions


The heat wave in the Southwest is hitting at prime tourist season when millions of people are visiting the Grand Canyon and other national parks and recreation areas. And it's creating dangerous wildfire conditions, too. David Condos with member station KUER is based in St. George, Utah, and he's here with us now to tell us more. Hello, David.


MARTIN: So you're in St. George, which is in the desert, not far from Las Vegas. I guess it's not really surprising that it's hot there in July, but is there something different about what's going on now?

CONDOS: Yeah. So this heat wave is expected to really push things to the extreme. So the forecast for my area calls for daytime highs to be at or above 110 degrees for five straight days, so from the end of this week into early next week. And this weekend, highs here in St. George will be near 115 degrees. And that could break some records that were set a century ago, back in the 1920s. You know, I talked with Jon Wilson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service here in Utah, and here's how he described it.

JON WILSON: It's definitely common to have these kind of streaks. What's a little less common, though, is just the impressive warmth, so the 115-degree territory for several days in a row.

CONDOS: So, yeah, it'll still be very extreme even for an area that is used to heat.

MARTIN: What are the big concerns about the heat where you are?

CONDOS: Well, you know, rescuing tourists is actually a big one. You know, it doesn't take long for this kind of heat to affect your health. And this area is home to some of America's most popular outdoor recreation areas like Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, Zion National Park. And Zion, for example, got more than 4.5 million visitors last year and majority of them in the summer. So there's a lot of extra people in the region this month beyond residents. And so, you know, I talked with Jonathan Shafer with the park, and he told me lots of visitors come from other parts of the country, other parts of the world, and they're often not acclimated to or prepared for the hot conditions here.

JONATHAN SHAFER: It's common to get here and think that you're going to be able to recreate here the same way that you could in an area where you've come from that's cooler. The reality is that this can be an extreme place.

CONDOS: And last year, Zion had to rescue around 120 people, many of them related to people being out in dangerous heat. So, you know, these types of temps can really put a strain on search-and-rescue operations in remote areas.

MARTIN: So are the parks and recreation areas doing anything to try to keep visitors safe?

CONDOS: Well, just making sure people are aware of the heat danger is the first thing. And so, you know, even before the current heat wave, Zion posted signs around the park making sure visitors know about how much water to have with them. And when it gets really hot, you know, they'll actually place rangers in person at popular trailheads as one last check to verbally make sure people are prepared for what they're getting into.

MARTIN: So let me ask you about wildfires. This heat - doesn't it increase the risk for those as well?

CONDOS: Yeah, so we actually had a wet winter here with a lot of snow, and that helped grasses and shrubs grow extra big. But with heat like this, they're drying out fast and becoming potential wildfire fuel. And, you know, along with this heat, relative humidity will be in the single digits. And we've actually already had - one fire started north of Arches National Park earlier this week. It closed down part of Interstate 70 for a bit and burned nearly 2,000 acres. So, yeah, that's a big concern going forward as well. And unfortunately, you know, the monsoon rains that typically arrive this time of year to cool things off have been delayed. So it'll be a while yet before we get some relief.

MARTIN: So, David, before we let you go, you live there. Could you just describe what it's like?

CONDOS: Yeah, I mean, it's hot, as you can imagine it. You know, it feels a bit like opening a hot oven when I open my door to go outside or the door of a hot car that's been outside. So it feels every degree of it.

MARTIN: David Condos is a reporter with member station KUER. David, thank you.

CONDOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
David Condos