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Scorching temperatures prompt excessive heat warnings in southwest U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

NPR's Kirk Siegler reports that more than 10 million people are under excessive heat warnings in Arizona, Nevada and parts of California until the weekend. It's the result of a heat dome where high pressure pushes hot air down and causes temperatures to soar.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Climate scientists are warning this summer could be among the hottest on record, which is no surprise to Queen Anunay. She's been preparing for extreme heat emergencies as the new deputy chief at Las Vegas Fire and Rescue.

QUEEN ANUNAY: We want everybody to - if you don't have to be outside, to stay inside in cooler temperatures.

SIEGLER: Dangerously hot temperatures of up to 112 are forecast in Las Vegas and Phoenix and 111 in Palm Springs. First responders are mobilizing to protect the homeless and elderly from potentially life-threatening heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN BEEPING)

SIEGLER: But Vegas faces a particular challenge, Anunay says, because there will still be lots of tourists out on the strip, regardless of the extreme heat advisories. Donald Trump has also scheduled an outdoor rally there later this weekend.

ANUNAY: And although we have air-conditioned casinos and hotels, we have a lot of sites for people to see, and so people are out more than they are normally when they're home.

SIEGLER: The city is dispatching community paramedic teams that will also target vulnerable populations and get them to newly opened cooling centers. Extreme heat kills more people every year in the U.S. than any other extreme weather disaster, including wildfires or floods. Last year alone, Arizona's two most populous counties recorded more than 800 heat-related deaths.

FATIMA LUNA: Here and in Arizona in general, we often hear that - oh, we're used to the heat. We are desert people.

SIEGLER: Fatima Luna is Tucson's chief resilience officer, a new position focused on climate sustainability. She says many of the heat deaths are longtime Arizonans.

LUNA: We have to change that narrative. Every single heat-related death is preventable.

SIEGLER: This week, Tucson passed new heat ordinances that will give city workers more breaks and get more heat relief kits, including electrolyte drinks and instant ice packs out to the homeless.

LUNA: Even though we're used to the heat, we're not used to this type of heat, so constant and so extreme.

SIEGLER: With human-caused climate change, these extreme events are more frequent, they come earlier and last longer. And that doesn't bode well for wildfires either. But Grant Beebe, a director at the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, says the good news is fuels in higher altitude forests haven't dried out that much yet because it was a good snow year.

GRANT BEEBE: There's still some snowpack out there. That's great. There's - we got some late snow. We got some late moistures. That's all good. That'll push the start of fire season - major fire season in the West a little bit later.

SIEGLER: The heat dome extends from the baking Southwest up into Southern Idaho and Oregon where temperatures could hit records in the mid-90s, temperate for early June if you consider tomorrow's predicted high in Furnace Creek, Calif., of 121.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.