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An intense heat wave in California is stressing the state's power grid

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Western U.S. is baking under a historic, life-threatening heat wave.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah. The city of Sacramento on Tuesday hit an astonishing 116 degrees, and California narrowly averted rolling electrical blackouts.

MARTINEZ: Nathan Rott, a member of NPR's climate team, is on the line in Southern California.

Nathan, I live in Los Angeles, and yesterday, right around 6 p.m., I was in a deep sleep. My phone blasted me awake because it seemed like California's power grid was really going to be pushed to its limits.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Oh, no. Yeah, and it very nearly was. State officials were warning residents to prepare for rolling blackouts all day, especially as electrical demand climbed to an all-time high in the afternoon. But public messaging, including that very jarring push alert, which, yeah, it kind of surprised me, too, urging people to conserve electricity, it seemed to have worked. You know, if you look at graphs of the state's power usage last night, you can see a dip in the hour after that alert was sent, which was enough for the state to avoid any widespread blackouts.

MARTINEZ: And I understand, though, this heat is contributing to some wildfires that are near where you are. Tell us about those.

ROTT: Yeah. So we're in peak fire season, as you well know, here in California. And there are a number of blazes here and in other parts of the west. In Southern California, near where we are, the most notable is near the town of Hemet. Temperatures there were around 107 degrees yesterday. That fire's killed at least two people and is threatening thousands of homes and other major fires threatening homes in the mountain town of Big Bear. Remember, A, this is all happening on a landscape that is dealing with a megadrought, the driest period, scientists say, in at least 1,200 years. So it's extremely dangerous conditions for firefighters and for the people that are living in these fire-prone landscapes.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, I never get used to smelling the fire in the air all day. Nate, you're a member of NPR's climate team. Is it fair to say these conditions of fires and extreme heat are climate change?

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, I'd say it's more than fair. Research has already shown that the megadrought we're talking about, which is threatening the supply for tens of millions of people in the West, is being fueled by human-caused climate change. A study published a couple of weeks ago by researchers at Harvard and the University of Washington found that the number of days with dangerous heat, which they define as heat and humidity combined feeling like 103 degrees or above, those are expected to double in North America by the year 2050. And it's even worse closer to the equator. Here's the lead author of that study, Lucas Vargas Zeppetello.

LUCAS VARGAS ZEPPETELLO: It's really important to understand that, you know, the thresholds that we have in our sort of memory banks for extreme weather, those thresholds are not going to be meaningful. You know, they're already not meaningful now because things that were previously considered very extreme are going to be much, much more frequent.

ROTT: And that's something he said that we're already seeing. I mean, this heat wave is a good example - the ones that Europe experienced earlier this summer, which led to massive wildfires there, the heat waves in India. And Zeppetello said that this research is clear that it's only going to get worse if climate warming emissions aren't cut immediately.

MARTINEZ: All right, Nate, how much longer is this California heat wave going to last?

ROTT: It's not over yet. Forecasters say unusually hot temperatures are expected across much of the West through the end of the week. So officials are saying conserve electricity. Check in on your neighbors. It's important to remember that heat waves are the deadliest natural disaster in the world, so people need to be careful.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Nathan Rott.

Thanks a lot.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.