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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Weathercatch: Worst. July. Ever? Region racks up host of extreme records for month

The Club Creek 2 Fire that started July 16, 2021, near Winthrop is one of 12 large wildfires burning in Eastern Washington.  (Northwest Interagency Coordination Center)
The Club Creek 2 Fire that started July 16, 2021, near Winthrop is one of 12 large wildfires burning in Eastern Washington. (Northwest Interagency Coordination Center)
By Nic Loyd and Linda Weiford For The Spokesman-Review

To say July is typically the hottest month of the year in the Inland Northwest is a huge understatement in 2021.

Not only did we just endure the hottest month ever recorded, but historical dry conditions stoked an early wildfire season that poured haze and smoke into our skies. Furthermore, thunderstorms unleashed dangerous lightning strikes with little rain.

First, July’s all-time heat record. Three heatwaves in four weeks brought a total of 22 days of 90-degree and above temperatures to Spokane and much of the Inland Northwest.

Spokane’s average high temperature during the month was 91.4 degrees, compared with the normal average high of 84.1. What’s more, even the overnight lows were high, averaging 63.6 degrees compared with 56. Taking the daily highs and lows together, July’s average temperature was 77.5 degrees, toppling the long-standing record of 75.9 degrees set in 1906. That we shattered a monthly all-time record by 1.6 degrees is remarkable, indeed.

Compare all of this with July 2020 when Spokane’s first 90-degree day didn’t arrive until July 16. By that date this year, we’d already sweat through 24 days of 90 degrees and higher stretching back to June 1. (On June 29, Spokane hit an all-time record of 109 degrees, so this is definitely the summer of shattered heat records.)

On the heels of a very dry spring and early summer, it rained little more than a tenth of an inch during July 2021, pushing the entire Inland Northwest into an intense drought, impacting crops and livestock and elevating fire danger. On July 20 – for the first time – the U.S. Drought Monitor placed much of the region under “exceptional” drought, the most severe category of the monitoring system based on soil and climatological conditions.

Not surprisingly, dry soils and brittle vegetation combined with prolonged heat set the stage for an early and severe wildfire season. During July’s final days, 12 large wildfires were burning in the eastern half of Washington, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.

“We don’t see fire behavior like this typically until late August in Washington,” wrote Kittitas District 1 Captain Eric Kiehn in a Facebook post from the scene of a wildfire near Spokane on July 28. “It’s rather alarming. Our seasons don’t start out like this.”

Contributing to July’s wildfires were multiple “dry” thunderstorms that produced cloud-to-ground lightning but little or no rain. Lightning that strikes dry vegetation with no precipitation can easily spark flames. Then wind gusts that often accompany storms quickly spreads them.

Also this month, wildfire smoke created a veil of haze over the Inland Northwest, dimming the sun and creating fiery sunsets and sunrises. Smoke from blazes burning in Washington, Oregon and California triggered air quality alerts in Spokane and other Eastern Washington communities. On July 20, a jet stream picked up the smoke and carried it all the way to the East Coast, where a thick haze hung over major cities including New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston. For almost a week, it seemed the entire country was breathing wildfire smoke.

And talk about fitting. The heat intensified during last two days of the month, bringing triple-digit highs and excessive heat warnings for the entire Inland Northwest. Also, widespread smoke caused air quality to drop into the “unhealthy” category for Spokane and other communities.

July turned to August on Sunday with cooler weather and desperately-needed rain. A good thunderstorm soak in some locations. A brief shower or light rain in others. Although the precipitation made withering flowers and lawns happy, it wasn’t enough to make a dent in our severe drought conditions.

Good riddance, July 2021. Some of us are thinking, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

———

Nic Loyd is a meteorologist in Washington state. Linda Weiford is a writer in Moscow, Idaho, who’s also a weather geek. Contact: ldweiford@gmail.com

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