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Sizzling heat wave creates health hazard in southwestern US

Steve Smith wipes sweat from his face as temperatures climb to near-record highs in Phoenix on Monday, June 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX (AP) — A punishing heat wave has arrived in the Southwestern U.S. and brought temperatures that will approach 120 degrees in Arizona — a number not seen in the desert city in more than 20 years.

Arizona is seeing the most stifling temperatures, but the wrath of the heat wave is being felt across Nevada and California as well. Las Vegas was forecast to hit 117 on Tuesday on the first day of summer, and excessive heat warnings cover almost all of California.

Airlines canceled flights in Phoenix because the extreme heat makes it too difficult to take off. The major burn center in Arizona urged people to be careful around concrete, playground equipment and vehicle interiors. The National Park Service warned visitors to not to hike into the Grand Canyon because of excessive heat.

Despite the dangers, the heat may not be as bad as originally expected. The weather service had been forecasting Tuesday highs at 120 or 121 degrees in Phoenix for the past several days, but it now predicts 119.

“That’s deadly heat no matter how you slice it,” National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Breckenridge said.

Here are a few things to know about the heat wave:

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HITTING 120 IS RARE

Phoenix and Las Vegas are used to 110-degree heat, but temperatures above 115 are rare.

Phoenix has hit 118 degrees 11 times, most recently last summer. The last time it reached 120 was in 1995. A notorious heat wave in 1990 brought consecutive days at 120 degrees, including the record of 122.

Las Vegas is forecast to hit 114 on Monday and tie a record high of 117 degrees on Tuesday — last recorded in 2013.

The heat is spread across California. The Central Valley has been baking in unusually bad heat, and the Northern California city of Redding hit a June 18 record of 110 degrees on Sunday — 19 degrees above the normal.

It could be worse: Death Valley could see 124 degrees on Tuesday.

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AIRLINES WATCHING THE HEAT

When the temperature soars, it’s harder for airplanes to take off.

As a result, airlines are taking the heat seriously.

American Airlines cancelled nearly 40 flights on Tuesday in Phoenix operated by regional jets because of the heat. The airline also said it will allow Phoenix passengers flying during the peak heat Monday through Wednesday to change flights without a fee.

American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said the smaller regional jets flown by its partners can’t operate once the temperature hits 118 degrees. That maximum is set by Bombardier, the manufacturer. Larger airliners made by Boeing and Airbus have higher maximum operating temperatures, but airlines still need to closely monitor the weight of the jets during the heat.

Feinstein said the carrier began limiting sales on some flights to prevent the planes from exceeding maximum weight for safe takeoff in the hot conditions. Airlines can use other strategies for dealing with limitation on the planes during hot weather, such as not fueling completely to make the plane lighter for takeoff, then making a refueling stop.

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SWELTERING VEGAS

Las Vegas visitors should be aware of a little-known fact about the temperatures in the gambling mecca: The Strip is often hotter than the rest of the city.

Meteorologist Ashley Allen with the National Weather Service in Las Vegas says the city’s airport is forecast to hit 114 on Monday, but temperatures on the Strip could reach somewhere between 115 and 120 degrees.

Allen says the Las Vegas Strip’s tall, close buildings and long stretches of concrete cause the area to heat quickly and cool slowly. She says it’s hard to predict exactly how hot the Strip will get because the Weather Service does not get official readings there.

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BURN RISKS

It gets so hot in Phoenix that stores put coverings over door handles so people don’t burn their hands. Steering wheels and car shifters can be too hot to touch when getting into a car. And the pavement can burn the paws of pets.

The director of the Arizona Burn Center said second- and third-degree burns from touching hot items are common in the extreme heat. Dr. Kevin Foster warned people to be extra careful around concrete, car interiors and playground equipment, especially young children who have sensitive skin.

Pavement and concrete can be dangerous for pets, Foster said.

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HEALTH HAZARDS

The heat is a serious public health hazard in places such as Phoenix and Las Vegas.

The county that is home to Phoenix had 130 heat-related deaths in 2016, the highest number in more than a decade. The Arizona Department of Health Services says nearly 2,000 people visit Arizona emergency rooms every year because of heat-related illnesses.

Homeless people comprised one-third of heat-related deaths in 2016, according to county records. Most of the others involved people with non-functioning air conditioners.

Kurt Dickson, an emergency room doctor at Banner Health in Phoenix, said people have a range of heat illnesses during the summer months, including fatigue, heatstroke and severe sun burns.

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