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How 31 days of historic heat affected Phoenix: heat-related deaths, collapsed cacti, asphalt burns

With Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team in the background, a digital billboard updates the time and temperature as temperatures are expected to hit 116-degrees July 18, 2023, in Phoenix.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Saguaro cactuses collapsed from dehydration, multiple people were burned falling onto asphalt, and volunteers hosed down bald eagles and owls at a wildlife refuge as Phoenix suffered through a record 31 days with temperatures exceeding 110 degrees, a streak that finally broke Monday.

The broiling temperatures, part of a dangerous heat wave that suffocated the Southwest in July, dipped slightly Monday as the high in Arizona’s capital city reached a mere 108 degrees, the Associated Press reported.

“The record streak of 31 straight days of 110+ degree temperatures has ended,” the National Weather Service said Monday on social media. “The high temperature at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport reached 108 degrees this afternoon, which is only 2 degrees above normal.”

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The previous record was 18 straight days in 1974, the Associated Press reported.

The historic heat began blasting the Southwest in June, stretching from Texas through New Mexico and Arizona into the California desert. Phoenix and its suburbs suffered longer and more painfully than most areas.

In July, Phoenix sweltered through a record 16 straight days when overnight lows didn’t drop below 90 degrees, making it difficult for the city of 1.6 million to cool off even after sunset, according to the AP.

The extended heat wave made Phoenix the first major city in the country to reach an average monthly temperature above 100 degrees, Axios reported.

In the Sonoran Desert, saguaro cacti that usually live about 150 years have been succumbing to the extreme heat, which weakened the plants’ skin tissues, Fox 10 in Phoenix reported.

“When it gets dry, those tissues start to get really soft, and these large plants, the really majestic ones in particular, will literally collapse on themselves,” Kevin Hultine, director of research at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, told the station.

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At Liberty Wildlife in Phoenix, volunteers have been working extra afternoon shifts spraying down rescued large birds with hoses, while circuits have been becoming overloaded by multiple fans trying to cool the facility, according to the news outlet Arizona’s Family.

“The problem with this year is that the heat has been so high for so many days in a row,” Laura Hackett, a wildlife biologist for the animal rehabilitation center, told the station.

Snickers, a great horned owl, is sprayed down with water by a volunteer at Liberty Wildlife, an animal rehabilitation center and hospital, during afternoon temperatures above 110 degrees amid the city's worst heat wave on record on July 26, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. Mario Tama/Getty

Some of the animals have been burned just by falling onto the hot ground, and the same thing has been happening to people, with some suffering life-threatening burns from contact with pavement, CNN reported.

Dr. Kevin Foster, director of burn services at the Arizona Burn Center at Valleywise Health, told CNN that the center sees a rise in burns each summer, but both the number of patients and the seriousness of the burns has been “much higher” in recent weeks, filling the center’s 45 beds.

Asphalt can reach temperatures 40 to 60 degrees higher than the air temperature, which reached 119 degrees in Phoenix in mid-July, CNN reported.

“The temperature of asphalt and pavement and concrete and sidewalks in Arizona on a warm sunny day or summer afternoon is 180 degrees sometimes,” Foster told the network. “I mean, it’s just a little below boiling, so it’s really something.”

The medical examiner in Phoenix has reported 25 heat-related deaths so far this year and is investigating an additional 249 deaths for ties to heat, the AP reported. There were a record 425 heat-related deaths across Maricopa County last year.

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Though temperatures in Arizona have dipped, the reprieve is expected to be brief, with the forecast calling for highs above 110 later in the week. The National Weather Service said August could be even hotter than July, according to the AP.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him @jeremycfox.