U.S. Northwest Feels the Burn of Extreme Heat Wave

All-time highs predicted for Seattle and Portland

July 29, 2009, 10:11 AM

July 29, 2009 — -- While the Northwest United States is normally a refuge for vacationers seeking relief from stewing summer heat, record-setting temperatures are forecast to rise even higher today as a sweltering heat wave blankets the region.

Seattle ABC affiliate KOMO News forecast an all-time high of 101 degrees today, which would be just the third time the thermometer has hit triple digits in the region. As of 10:00 a.m. PST, the temperature in Seattle was 93 degrees.

Record-setting temperatures have been recorded across the Northwest this week, in some places shattering previous records by more than 10 degrees. A staggering 93 degrees Tuesday in Hoquiam, Wash., near the coast of Grays Harbor, easily topped the previous record of 81 degrees, which dated back to 1965.

For the latest on the record-breaking heat wave, watch "World News With Charles Gibson" tonight 6:30 ET

Temperatures were even higher south of typically rainy Seattle, hitting 106 Tuesday at Oregon's Portland International Airport, just one degree short of the record set in 1981, according to the Associated Press. ABC Portland affiliate KATU forecast today to at least match the all-time record, with highs ranging from about 105 to 108 degrees for much of the region.

Today marks the third consecutive day of soaring temperatures. KOMO meteorologists attribute the heat wave's staying power to a high pressure ridge in the region and a strong lower pressure system to the west that prevents Pacific winds from cooling the coast.

The last two times the Northwest experienced systems similar to the one currently cooking the region were 1977 and 1981, two of the longest heat waves on record.

Record-setting temperatures like these, and the staying potential of a lasting heat wave quickly begin to raise health and utility concerns.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which supplies hydro-electric power throughout the Pacific Northwest from the base of the Columbia River Basin, set its all-time summer peak power consumption record Tuesday, supplying about 8,100 megawatts of power to the Northwest alone. The figure busted the previous record, set during the 2006 heat wave, by 600 megawatts.

Power consumption estimates are even higher for today.

High nighttime temperatures have added strain to the power grid, preventing it from recuperating overnight. But BPA does not expect a power shortage, as bearable weather conditions in Northern California have prevented power consumption from spiking too high.

"The thing that is easing the stress is California," said Michael Milstein, a BPA spokesman. "The '06 heat wave included California, which put a lot more strain on the system."

Pacific Northwest Heat Wave Causes Health Concerns

The effects of power outages during a sustained heat wave could potentially be deadly. Though there have been few reports of heat-related illness thus far, and no reports of death, public health officials are still being cautious.

A 2003 heat wave in Europe killed more than 35,000 people across the continent by some estimates, and local health officials are taking precautions to protect citizens.

"What happened in Europe in 2003 was a wake-up call," Dr. Gary Oxman, a health officer for Multnomah County, Oregon, told the Oregonian newspaper. "Since that time, we've been much more assertive in getting the message out."

Cooling centers have been established across the area, mainly in churches, community centers and nursing homes. Many specify "Seniors Only" service, though the dangers affect people of all ages.

A list of Portland-area cooling centers can be found through KATU here.

Compounding the heat problem is the fact that air conditioning is not found in the typically cool, wet Northwest as frequently as it is in other regions of the country.

"The thing about a place like Portland is there are some buildings and residences that don't have air conditioning," Andy Bryant, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, told the AP. "You go to Phoenix or Dallas, yes, it would be very hot there, too, but they have more of a system in place to deal with it."