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Dire fire warnings issued in wake of record heatwave in Canada, U.S

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(C) Reuters. Smoke and flames are seen during the Sparks Lake wildfire at Thompson-Nicola Regional District, British Columbia, Canada, June 29, 2021, in this image obtained via social media. BC WILDFIRE SERVICE via REUTERS

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By Moira Warburton and Sergio Olmos

VANCOUVER/PORTLAND (Reuters) -A heat wave that has scorched much of western Canada and the U.S. Northwest eased on Wednesday after smashing record high temperatures throughout the region this week, but officials were still bracing for more sizzling temperatures and the threat of wildfires.

Deaths soared in the Canadian Pacific (NYSE:CP) coast province of British Columbia in recent days. Cities in the U.S. states of Washington and Oregon shattered all-time highs for temperature for days.

U.S. officials blamed the heat for a handful of deaths. In Canada, at least 233 people died in British Colombia between Friday and Monday, about 100 more than the average for a four-day period, the BC Coroners Service said.

Lytton, a town in central British Columbia, this week broke Canada’s all-time hottest temperature record three times. It stands at 49.6 degrees Celsius (121.28 degrees Fahrenheit) as of Tuesday. The previous high in Canada, known for brutally cold winters, was 45 degrees C, set in Saskatchewan in 1937.

In the U.S. Northwest, temperatures in Washington and Oregon soared well above 100 degrees F (40 degrees C) over the weekend. Portland, Oregon set all-time highs several days in a row including 116 degrees F (47 degrees C) on Sunday.

The heat dome, a weather phenomenon trapping heat and blocking other weather systems from moving in, weakened as it moved east, but was still intense enough to set records from Alberta to Manitoba, said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment and Climate Change Canada, a government agency.

“In some of these places, their records are being annihilated,” Phillips said. “It really is spectacular, unprecedented for us.”

It was unclear what triggered the dome, but climate change looks to be a contributor, given the heatwave’s duration and extremes, Phillips said, also noting that it set new temperature highs a month earlier than the usual hottest time of year.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paused to remember the dead during remarks in Ottawa on Wednesday and expressed concern over the fire treat.

“We’ve been seeing more and more of this type of extreme weather event in the past years,” Trudeau said. “So realistically, we know that this heat wave won’t be the last.”

OREGON EMERGENCY

Oregon Governor Kate Brown declared a state of emergency due to “imminent threat of wildfires” while the U.S. National Weather Service in Portland issued a red-flag warning for parts of the state, saying wind conditions could spread fire quickly should one start.

“Now is the time to make sure your emergency prep kit is ready to go in the case you are asked to evacuate,” the weather service said.

The Portland Fire Department banned use of fireworks for the Fourth of July weekend, when Americans celebrate Independence Day.

Elderly people, along with children and the chronically ill were especially at risk, said B.C.’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe. Advocates warned that migrant workers were particularly vulnerable, especially inside greenhouses.

Staff were cancelling outdoor activities to keep seniors safe, said Lee Coonfer, chief executive of the BC Seniors Living Association, which represents 175 seniors homes.

FIRE AND MELTING ICE (NYSE:ICE) POSE RISKS

The extreme weather poses different threats depending on the region.

Most of Alberta and large parts of British Columbia and Saskatchewan are at extreme risk of wildfires, according to Natural Resources Canada’s fire weather map.

“All the ingredients are there. It’s a powder keg just looking for a spark,” said Mike Flannigan, professor of wildland fire at University of Alberta.

The interior of British Columbia fears thunderstorms forecast for Thursday will bring lightning, sparking forest fires.

But the Chilcotin region, roughly 600 km (370 miles) north of Vancouver, was on flood warning due to the “unprecedented” amount of snow melting at “extraordinary” rates, according to a government release.

“These are the types of issues that are going to be confronted more and more over the next few years,” said Adam Rysanek, assistant professor of environmental systems at the University of British Columbia.