UNITED STATES NEWS

Tourists still flock to Death Valley amid searing US heat wave blamed for several deaths

Jul 8, 2024, 9:23 PM | Updated: Jul 9, 2024, 7:52 pm

DEATH VALLEY, Calif. (AP) — Hundreds of Europeans touring the American West and adventurers from around the U.S. are still being drawn to Death Valley National Park, even though the desolate region known as one of the Earth’s hottest places is being punished by a dangerous heat wave blamed for a motorcyclist’s death over the weekend.

French, Spanish, English and Swiss tourists left their air-conditioned rental cars and motorhomes Monday to take photographs of the barren landscape so different than the snow-capped mountains and rolling green hills they know back home. American adventurers liked the novelty of it, even as officials at the park in California warned visitors to stay safe.

“I was excited it was going to be this hot,” said Drew Belt, a resident of Tupelo, Mississippi, who wanted to stop in Death Valley as the place boasting the lowest elevation in the U.S. on his way to climb California’s Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Kind of like walking on Mars.”

Park Superintendent Mike Reynolds cautioned visitors in a statement that “high heat like this can pose real threats to your health.”

The searing heat wave gripping large parts of the United States also led to record daily high temperatures in Oregon, where it is suspected to have caused four deaths in the Portland area. More than 146 million people around the U.S. were under heat alerts Monday, especially in Western states.

Dozens of locations in the West and Pacific Northwest tied or broke previous heat records over the weekend and are expected to keep doing so into the week.

The early U.S. heat wave came as the global temperature in June was record warm for the 13th straight month and marked the 12th straight month that the world was 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than pre-industrial times, the European climate service Copernicus said.

In Oregon’s Multnomah County, home to Portland, the medical examiner is investigating four suspected heat-related deaths recorded on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, officials said. Three of the deaths involved county residents who were 64, 75 and 84 years old, county officials said in an email. Heat also was suspected in the death of a 33-year-old man transported to a Portland hospital from outside the county.

Portland broke daily record temperatures on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and was on track to do so again on Monday with a forecast high of 102 F (38.9 C), National Weather Service meteorologist Hannah Chandler-Cooley said. High temperatures were expected in Portland through Tuesday evening.

The temperatures aren’t expected to reach as high as they did during a similar heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in 2021, which killed an estimated 600 people across Oregon, Washington and western Canada. But the duration could be problematic because many homes in the region lack air conditioning.

Heat illness and injury are cumulative and can build over the course of a day or days, officials warn. In San Jose, California, a homeless man died last week from apparent heat-related causes, Mayor Matt Mahan reported on the social platform X, calling it “an avoidable tragedy.”

In eastern California’s sizzling desert, a high temperature of 128 F (53.3 C) was recorded Saturday and Sunday at Death Valley National Park, where a visitor, who was not identified, died Saturday from heat exposure. Another person was hospitalized, officials said.

They were among six motorcyclists riding through the Badwater Basin area in scorching weather, the park said in a statement. The other four were treated at the scene. Emergency medical helicopters were unable to respond because the aircraft cannot generally fly safely over 120 F (48.8 C), officials said.

More extreme highs are in the near forecast with a high of possibly 130 F (54.4 C) around midweek,

The largest national park outside Alaska, Death Valley is considered one of the most extreme environments in the world. The hottest temperature ever officially recorded on Earth was 134 F (56.67 C) in July 1913 in Death Valley, though some experts dispute that measurement and say the real record was 130 F (54.4 C), recorded there in July 2021.

“It’s impressive,” Thomas Mrzliek of Basel, Switzerland, said of the triple digit heat. “It like a wave that hits when you get out of the car, but it’s a very dry heat. So it’s not as in Europe.”

Across the desert in Nevada, Las Vegas set a record high of 120 F (48.8 C) on Sunday and was forecast to hit a record high of 115 F (46.1 C) on Monday. The National Weather Service forecast a high of 117 F (47.2 C) in Phoenix.

Extreme heat and a longstanding drought in the West has also dried out vegetation that can fuel wildfires

In California, a wildfire in the mountains of Santa Barbara County grew to more than 34 square miles (88 square kilometers) by Monday night. More than 1,000 firefighters were on the lines of the Lake Fire, and areas under evacuation orders included the former Neverland Ranch once owned by the late pop star Michael Jackson. The blaze was just 8% contained.

Rare heat advisories were extended even into higher elevations including around usually temperate Lake Tahoe, on the border of California and Nevada, with the weather service in Reno, Nevada, warning of “major heat risk impacts, even in the mountains.” For the third straight day, the town of South Lake Tahoe, California, hit a high of 91 F (32.7 C), beating the previous record of 89 F (31.6 C) set in 2017.

And for the first time in records dating to 1888, Reno reached 105 F (40.5 C) for the third consecutive day. A short time later on Monday, the city set a record high of 106 F (41.1 C), leap-frogging the previous mark of 104 F (40 C) set in 2017.

People flocked Monday to the beaches around Lake Tahoe, especially Sand Harbor State Park, where the record high of 92 F (33.3 C) set on Sunday smashed the old record of 88 F (31.1 C) set in 2014. For the fifth consecutive day, Sand Harbor closed its gates within 90 minutes of opening at 8 a.m. because it had reached capacity.

“It’s definitely hotter than we are used to,” Nevada State Parks spokesperson Tyler Kerver said.

___

Rush reported from Portland, Oregon, and Snow reported from Phoenix. AP journalists Christopher Weber and John Antczak in Los Angeles; Janie Har in San Francisco; and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, contributed to this report.

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Tourists still flock to Death Valley amid searing US heat wave blamed for several deaths