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'Extreme fire behavior': 2 firefighters killed as Western wildfires intensify during heat wave

They died while responding to the Cedar Basin Fire near the Prescott National Forest: "Our hearts are heavy tonight," the Bureau of Land Management said.

Heat wave strikes the west

July 10, 202101:52

LOS ANGELES — Two firefighters were killed Saturday in Arizona as wildfires raged through the West, threatening California's overburdened power grid during an oppressive heat wave and ongoing drought.

The firefighters were killed in a plane crash while conducting aerial reconnaissance over the Cedar Basin Fire near the Prescott National Forest, the Bureau of Land Management said in a statement.

"Our hearts are heavy tonight with sincere condolences to families, loved ones and firefighters affected by this tragic aviation accident that occurred today in Arizona on the #CedarBasinFire," the agency tweeted.

Meanwhile, the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon doubled in size Saturday to nearly 77,000 acres in the Fremont-Winema National Forest, interrupting three electrical lines that transmit power from Oregon to California, energy officials said. As a result, California lost thousands of megawatts of imported power and struggled to maintain operating reserves as temperatures soared into triple digits in parts of the state.

David Garfield clears a fire break around his home as the Sugar Fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire, burns on Saturday.Noah Berger / AP

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Saturday to free up additional energy capacity for the power grid during the heat wave and growing fire threat. The order allows ships berthed at California ports to use auxiliary engines rather than shore power to relieve pressure on the electricity system.

The Western heat wave has also triggered fires throughout California and much of the West. California’s largest current fire, the Beckwourth Complex Fire 45 miles north of Lake Tahoe, showed no signs of slowing down after doubling in size between Friday and Saturday and jumping the state border into Nevada.

As of Saturday evening, the Beckwourth Complex Fire, which was sparked by lightning on June 30, spanned more than 60,000 acres across two states and was 9 percent contained. Nearly 1,800 personnel were assigned to the fire while an excessive heat advisory remains in effect for the area through Tuesday.

"We're looking at unprecedented early fire season [and] extreme fire behavior," said incident commander Rocky Opliger during a community meeting Saturday.

The fire prompted mandatory evacuations, a closure of part of a national forest and presented serious danger for area campgrounds, National Forest Service officials said. It is one of several brush fires burning in California.

"Climate change is considered a key driver" of the state's recent wildfire woes, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said earlier this year.

Temperatures in parts of California have reached near-record highs with Death Valley hitting 130 degrees Friday, just four degrees shy of a world record set in 1913.

Officials called on Californians to conserve power Saturday despite the soaring temperatures.

“The intense heat waves we’ve been experiencing in California and throughout the West would strain just about any electrical grid,” said Elliot Mainzer, president and CEO of the California Independent System Operator, which oversees the electrical grid for much of the state. “We’re facing a serious situation here on the grid.”

Residents were also asked this week to cut back water consumption by 15 percent as a worsening drought continues to deplete water reserves throughout the state. As of Thursday, 50 of California’s 58 counties are in a drought state of emergency.

California’s northern mountain areas have experienced several large fires that have destroyed more than a dozen homes. Although there are no confirmed reports of building damage, the Beckwourth Complex Fire prompted evacuation orders or warnings for roughly 2,800 people along and the closure of nearly 200 square miles of Plumas National Forest.

On Friday, hot rising air formed a gigantic, smoky pyrocumulus cloud that reached thousands of feet high and created its own lightning, fire information officer Lisa Cox said.

Fire consumes a home as the Sugar Fire, part of the Beckwourth Complex Fire, tears through Doyle, Calif., on Saturday. Pushed by heavy winds, the fire came out of the hills and destroyed multiple residences in central Doyle.Noah Berger / AP

Spot fires caused by embers leapt up to a mile ahead of the northeastern flank — too far for firefighters to safely battle — and winds funneled the fire up draws and canyons full of dry fuel, where “it can actually pick up speed,” Cox said.

The flames rose up to 100 feet in places, forcing firefighters to focus on building bulldozer lines to protect homes.

Firefighters usually take advantage of cooler, more humid nights to advance on a fire, Cox said, but the heat and low humidity never let up.

Wildfires are also raging in western Idaho and southeast Washington, prompting both Idaho Gov. Brad Little and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to declare emergencies in their states.

"Washington is facing a historic drought and we have already experienced record-breaking heat. We must be vigilant in our efforts to prevent wildfires, and the loss of life and destruction of land and property that comes with them,” Inslee said in a statement. “We don’t want a repeat of recent years with dangerous wildfires across the state that have destroyed towns, killed livestock and resulted in weeks of unhealthy air quality.”

The Associated Press contributed.