THURS: Former Albuquerque Police Chief Files Whistleblower Suit, + More

Jul 15, 2021

Ousted Albuquerque Police Chief Files Whistleblower Lawsuit - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Albuquerque's former police chief is accusing top city officials of violating open record laws and a state statute meant to protect whistleblowers.

Michael Geier and his former assistant, Paulette Diaz, filed a complaint against the city in state district court late Wednesday. It specifically references Mayor Tim Keller and Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair, saying they micromanaged the police department and undermined Geier's efforts to address crime and comply with federal mandates related to police reforms.

After Geier was forced to resign last September, Keller's administration defended the decision, saying the chief wasn't doing his job.

Geier disputed that claim and leveled his own accusations in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal weeks after he was dismissed. Many of those concerns were outlined in the lawsuit, which seeks damages that include back pay as well as lost wages and benefits.

The mayor's office issued a statement Thursday, saying previous internal investigations had debunked the "wild accusations" made during Geier's final months as chief and that the complaint amounted to "nothing more than sour grapes."

"While we haven't seen this lawsuit, it appears he's turning to the courts to re-litigate false claims," the mayor's office said.

The complaint comes as Keller faces growing criticism for the city's crime problem. The Democrat is running for reelection.

Albuquerque was pushed into the national spotlight in 2020 when then-President Donald Trump announced the city would be one of several across the U.S. where federal agents would be sent to help tackle violent crime. Although auto thefts and other property crimes have decreased in the last couple years, homicides and violent crimes have remained high.

Albuquerque had 80 homicides in 2019, which was more than any other year in memory. There were almost as many in 2020. This year, the city is on track to shatter that record, having logged more than 60 in just the first six months of 2021.

It's a trend elsewhere too, as dozens of other cities have reported increases in their homicide rates over the last year.

During a recent online town hall, members of the Albuquerque Police Department's command staff said the nexus for homicides, particularly shootings, seems to involve drugs as well as parties where there's drinking involved.

Geier's lawsuit says he had instituted several programs aimed at reducing the city's crime rate and that he had tried to increase the department's compliance as it worked with a federal monitor on sweeping reforms that were part of a 2014 consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department. The agreement stemmed from a string of excessive force cases that predated Geier's tenure.

Geier also tried to recruit more officers to the understaffed department, but the lawsuit mentions misconduct at the police academy, incidents of discrimination against some cadets and resistance to implementing the reforms.

According to the lawsuit, Geier said his efforts were stymied by Keller and Nair's interference. The complaint states that the two had personal involvement with the selection of personnel for police department positions, tactical operations, crowd control measures, and social media posts published in Geier's name without his consent.

Nair denied that the Keller administration was making tactical decisions for the department when asked by reporters last year.

The lawsuit also talks about conversations with Keller and Nair in which they told Geier he needed to resign.

"The fruits of Keller and Nair's actions are echoed upon the city of Albuquerque with unprecedented violent crime rates and a police department on the verge of actual collapse," the lawsuit states.

New Video Shows Deputies Firing At Suspect As He Runs Away - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press/Report For America

Newly released video shows sheriff's deputies in New Mexico firing their weapons at a suspect after he had dropped a gun and started running away, providing details that didn't appear in the original narrative from officials investigating the deadly shooting last month.

Santa Fe County sheriff's deputies fatally shot Nathan Roybal, 32, after he led them on a chase in Santa Fe in a pickup truck that was wanted in connection with a reported assault, authorities said.

Footage from deputies' body-worn cameras and vehicle dashboard cameras, which was first obtained this week by television station KRQE, show Roybal pulling over in the truck and waving and firing a handgun at deputies through the driver's window on June 23. Deputies then fire at the truck from at least two angles.

They shoot again as Roybal leaves the truck, drops his gun and runs away with his back to deputies, the videos show.

An initial account from New Mexico State Police on June 24 said, "A male suspect got out of the vehicle, pointed a black handgun at the deputies. Deputies fired at the suspect, striking him."

After multiple outlets reported on the video this week, state police released additional information Thursday, including the names of the three deputies who fired: Cpl. Chris Zook, Deputy Leonardo Guzman and Deputy Jacob Martinez. Each has about a decade of law enforcement experience.

They also released Roybal's name, which the sheriff's department had included in public documents.

State police officials routinely withhold information in fatal police shootings, citing the need to notify next of kin and interview law enforcement involved.

A man fatally shot in November was not named for two weeks after his mother was notified, and his family launched a public campaign demanding more information.

Details in that case, including the names of officers, were released hours after Black Lives Matter protesters picketed in front of the official residence of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Explainer: Will New Mexico Do Enough To Limit Evictions? - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire July 31, after the Biden administration extended the date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes in many states. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on their rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who are behind on their rents.

As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here's the situation in New Mexico:

WHAT'S THE STATUS OF EVICTION MORATORIUMS IN THE STATE?

New Mexico is one of several states that enacted a moratorium last year halting eviction proceedings. It covers evictions for tenants who are unable to pay rent. Evictions continue for other reasons. The state Supreme Court will decide when to lift the state moratorium and has not set an expiration date yet.

WHAT'S BEING DONE TO HELP PEOPLE FACING EVICTION?

New Mexico and two major counties have set aside $171 million to help tenants with outstanding rent, utility payments and other expenses. Last year, the state dedicated $13 million from the federal CARES Act to mortgage and rental assistance. This year, the state has access to $157 million in federal emergency rental assistance. The money can go toward 15 months of rent and other expenses, including internet access. So far, the state estimates it has distributed about $3 million, acknowledging that many eligible tenants have not applied.

HOW ARE THE COURTS HANDLING EVICTION HEARINGS?

State and municipal judges are under orders to halt the final step in the eviction process for an inability to pay rent. Tenants must provide courts with evidence of their current inability to pay rent.

Statistics from the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts say evictions fell by 40%, or 1,977 annual evictions, for the 12-month period ending in February from the same period immediately before the pandemic struck.

WHAT IS THE AFFORDABILITY IN THE STATE'S MAJOR RENTAL MARKETS?

Housing affordability is in line with the national average across much of New Mexico. Prior to the pandemic, New Mexico was just below the national average in its share of cost-burdened housing renters who devote at least 30% of income to housing costs.

New Mexico's current vacancy rate is similar to the roughly 7% national average, though the housing market is much tighter in the state capital city of Santa Fe.

State housing authorities say that overcrowding and poor housing conditions have contributed to the high rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths among New Mexico's Native American population.

ARE EVICTIONS EXPECTED TO CREATE A SURGE IN HOMELESSNESS?

It's hard to say how much homelessness will increase in New Mexico. One indication of the scope of the problem is census data showing 12,560 state residents concerned that they could be evicted over the next two months.

Maria Griego, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, fears that some landlords may be reluctant to pursue emergency rental assistance as property and rental prices surge and current lease agreements expire.

Uncovering Boarding School History Makes For Monumental Task - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

They sat inside a dust-covered box that had been stashed away, untouched, for years: black-and-white photographs of Apache students who were among the first sent to a New Mexico boarding school bankrolled by East Coast parishioners and literary fans.

The first showed the girls bundled in blankets with moccasins on their feet. The next, taken just weeks later, was starkly different, the children posing in plaid uniforms, high-laced boots and wide-brimmed straw hats.

Adjunct history professor Larry Larrichio said he stumbled upon the 1885 photos while researching a military outpost, and “it just brought a tear to my eye.”

The images represented the systematic attempt by the U.S. government, religious organizations and other groups to assimilate Indigenous youth into white society by removing them from their homes and shipping them off to boarding school. The effort spanned more than a century and is now the focus of what will be a massive undertaking by the U.S. government as it seeks to uncover the troubled legacy of the nation's policies related to Native American boarding schools, where reports of physical and sexual abuse were widespread.

“I looked at the faces of these beautiful Apache girls in their Native attire and then those ugly American bonnets,” said Larrichio, a research associate with the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico. "It just knocked me on my butt.”

The U.S. Interior Department has started combing through records in hopes of identifying past boarding schools and the names and tribes of students. The project also will try to determine how many children perished while attending those schools and were buried in unmarked graves.

As part of an effort that began years earlier, the disinterred remains of nine Native American children who died more than a century ago while attending a government-run school in Pennsylvania were handed over to relatives during a ceremony Wednesday so they could be returned to Rosebud Sioux tribal lands in South Dakota.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency, has promised a comprehensive review while acknowledging it would be a painful and difficult process.

Larrichio’s discovery hints at the immensity of the challenge, as each bit of new information leads down another avenue that needs to be researched.

While some records are kept by the agency and the National Archives, most are scattered across jurisdictions — from the bowels of university archives, like those Larrichio found, to government offices, church archives, museums and personal collections.

That's not to mention whatever records were lost or destroyed over the years.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has been working to amass information about the schools for almost a decade. With the help of grant funding and the work of independent researchers across the country, the Minnesota-based group has identified nearly 370 schools and estimates hundreds of thousands of Native American children passed through them between 1869 and the 1960s.

“It’s going to be a monumental task, and the initiative that was launched by the Interior is great, but it’s a short timeline and we’ll need further investigation,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, the group's CEO and a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation.

The coalition knows firsthand how difficult uncovering the truth will be. The group years ago filed public records requests with the federal government for information about the schools. The government didn’t have answers, Diindiisi McCleave said.

Of the schools identified by the group so far, she said records have been found for only 40% of them. The whereabouts of the rest are unknown.

What is known from the research and from family accounts is that there were children who never made it home.

With the Interior Department taking a first formal step to uncover more about the history, Diindiisi McCleave and others are renewing their push for a federal commission to be established in the U.S., much like one created in Canada, where the remains of more than 1,000 children were discovered in recent weeks at residential schools there.

In the United States, the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 and other laws and policies were enacted to establish and support Indian boarding schools across the nation. For over 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools that focused on assimilation.

The discoveries in Canada and the renewed spotlight in the U.S. have stirred strong emotions among tribal communities, including grief, anger, reflection and a deep desire for healing.

Haaland, Diindiisi McCleave and New Mexico Indian Affairs Secretary Lynn Trujillo have all recounted stories about their grandparents being sent away to boarding schools. They talk about the intergenerational trauma that was triggered by the experience and the effects that have manifested themselves on younger generations seeking to maintain their language and cultural practices, which were banned in boarding schools.

For some families, the boarding school experience was a forbidden topic, never to be talked about.

For others, the recent attention has spurred fresh conversations. Trujillo talked about her grandmother being taken when she was 6 and telling stories about how she was always so hungry and cold.

Trujillo said while her grandmother made it home, unlike other children, that experience shaped who she was.

“Our communities and Indigenous people have known about these atrocities for a very long time, but being able to bring them to light and talk about them — no matter how painful — is part of that process toward healing,” said Trujillo, a member of Sandia Pueblo who has been focused on bringing together Indigenous youth to highlight the need for more mental health resources and educational opportunities.

For Diindiisi McCleave, moving forward with healing will require more research, data and understanding.

“The biggest part of the work starts with the truth, and that includes not only truth from the federal government in this case and the churches that ran the schools, but hearing the truth from the perspective of the people who experienced it, listening to the testimony of survivors and descendants and understanding the full scope and impact of these experiences," she said.

Experts say the list of known boarding schools — and burial sites — will only expand as more grassroots research sheds light on schools that have otherwise been lost to history.

Already some researchers have spent years piecing together records, old newspaper reports and oral histories to find and identify lost children. Others have searched properties using ground-penetrating radar. Some state agencies that focus on Indigenous affairs are considering launching investigations into known schools.

The Interior Department said it's working on ways to “create a safe space,” such as a hotline or special website where people can share information about the schools and seek resources.

In New Mexico, the Ramona Industrial School for Indian Girls opened in the mid-1880s and housed mostly Apache students, many of whom had parents who were being held prisoner by the U.S. Army at Fort Union, about 100 miles away.

Not far from Santa Fe's historic plaza, the school was founded by Horatio Ladd, a congregational minister who contracted with the military to send Indigenous students there. The endeavor was supported by parishioners and admirers of author and activist Helen Hunt Jackson through fundraising newsletters and postcards.

Larrichio was working on a project for the National Park Service years ago when he happened upon brochures and other documents related to the school. It was a month-slong effort that involved combing through hundreds of archival collections at the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico.

With only brief references in books on other subjects, the school is an example of the difficult work facing the Interior Department as it embarks on its investigation. While Larrichio is sharing the materials he uncovered with the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, he said “it's the tip of the iceberg,” and much more work needs to be done.

“A lot of this information is probably buried — literally buried with respect to this collection I uncovered,” he said. “How many other stories are buried, and how much was purposefully destroyed? I think it's going to be very hard to really get a comprehensive understanding of the impact of this.”

Navajo Nation Reports 16 New COVID-19 Cases And 1 More Death - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 16 new COVID-19 cases and one more death. 

The figures released by the Navajo Department of Health brought the total number of cases on the vast reservation to 31,132 since the pandemic began. The death toll now is at 1,362. 

The Navajo Nation recently relaxed restrictions to allow visitors to travel on the reservation and visit popular attractions like Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley.  

The reservation is the country's largest at 27,000 square miles and it covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. 

While cases are down, Navajo leaders are urging residents to continue wearing masks and get vaccinated.

New Mexico Officials Say Pandemic Is Not Over, Vaccine Is KeyAssociated Press

While many businesses have reopened and restrictions have been lifted, New Mexico's top public health officials said Wednesday that the coronavirus pandemic is not over.

Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said during a briefing that their agencies are closely watching the spread of the more-contagious delta variant. So far, about 750 such cases have been confirmed in the state.

"What we're seeing in the United States now is an upward trend of cases. We do not want to see that," Scrase said. "Cases were way up, they came back down, we've had a nice flattening period and now we're starting to see an upward trend and a concerning and somewhat steep upward trend in some states — Arkansas, Missouri, Texas and Nevada — all of whom happen to have lower vaccination rates."

Scrase said the good news for New Mexico is that nearly two-thirds of residents 18 and older are fully vaccinated, meaning there is less opportunity for the virus to spread.

"I think we're getting some benefit from that and one the great benefits is we're not on this list of states that are having big upticks." he said.

Still, state officials said they are concerned about the variant and urged those who are unvaccinated to get their shots.

New Mexico reported 180 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday with 3 additional deaths and there are 97 people who are hospitalized.

FBI Agent Serving Warrant Wounded In Shootout In Albuquerque Associated Press

An FBI agent was wounded during a shootout Wednesday that left another man dead in northeast Albuquerque, authorities said.

According to an FBI spokesman, the agent was wearing a bulletproof vest that was struck by gunfire and is expected to survive.

The agent was serving a warrant related to a violent crime investigation and trying to make an arrest when the shootout occurred in an alleyway behind the strip mall.

The other man was declared dead at the scene.

FBI officials didn't identify the injured agent or the man killed and declined to say if any other suspects were detained or involved.

Opera Returns To Open-Air Desert Theater With Diverse Cast - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

An open-air theater surrounded by high desert vistas, the Santa Fe Opera is known as the place to watch the sun set while taking in a performance.

With a deadly respiratory virus still on the loose, the opera is one of the safest venues for large crowds and singers who are known for the strongest projection of sound in the music world.

The company prepared for opening night with stringent restrictions despite the availability of vaccines and the end of pandemic restrictions in New Mexico.

Actors donned N-95 masks during rehearsals, struggling to catch their breath through the barriers as they belted out their lines. It's tough enough to do at 7,000 feet of elevation.

Stagehands wore masks on set and across the opera's sprawling campus during pre-production for multiple shows that required everything from welding a life-sized metal tree and constructing massive golden clock gears to painting, sewing and carpentry.

Hundreds of people gathered last Saturday to watch the first show of the season — "Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)," Mozart's 1786 Italian opera reimagined in a 1930s depression-era set. The story tracks the day of a marriage between a woman of high birth and a working-class man as they fend off the advances of a lusty count.

Opera lovers started the party hours before sunset in the parking lot. Aficionados dressed to impress, unfolded tables and chairs and laid out picnics and glasses of champagne.

"This is part of our coming out especially after all the months of having been isolated and everything being shut down," said Linda McDonald-Hummingbird, a retired nurse and semi-professional singer. "This is a type of rebirth."

As the desert sky turned orange, the audience erupted before the performers took the stage.

"There's just a simple announcement that came over the speakers — 'Good evening, welcome to the Santa Fe Opera' — and then they go crazy," said soprano Vanessa Vasquez, who sang the role of Countess Almaviva. "It just filled me with so much gratitude and it awoke a creative spirit in me that's been quiet for the last year."

Vasquez spent the pandemic between Phoenix and her hometown of Scottsdale, visiting her parents more than she ever could on the road, and learning a new hobby — tennis. It's now part of her pre-performance ritual.

Behind the scenes, operas are wrestling with ongoing COVID-19 safety concerns and labor negotiations.

England's Glyndebourne Festival and France's Aix-en-Provence Festival have opened. Austria's Salzburg Festival starts Saturday and the Richard Wagner Festival resumes July 25 after a one-year absence.

New York's Metropolitan Opera hopes to start its season Sept. 27 but has yet to reach an agreement with its orchestra, despite inking a deal with stagehands earlier this month.

In Santa Fe, a union organizer representing the orchestra said negotiations were surprisingly easy.

Seats were blocked off near the orchestra, and masks were worn everywhere in rehearsals, which often took place indoors.

"Everybody wanted to get back to work, but they weren't going to sacrifice anyone for that," said Tracey Whitney, president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 618.

The masking made for a creative challenge.

"You can't see their expressions. The singers, every breath they take to sing, they suck the mask into their mouth. It's terribly uncomfortable. It's terribly hot. It's a great deal of discomfort," said Laurie Feldman, stage manager.

Immigration and travel restrictions also hobbled the casting process.

The show was staged by French director Laurent Pelly, but he didn't attend rehearsals in person. Instead, a production intern helped Feldman record rehearsals with an iPad. Feldman and Pelly reviewed the rehearsals each day.

Seats were scarce, so the opera filmed the show for the first time. The video was projected on a big screen in an overflow parking lot, similar to a drive-in theater. The pandemic has accelerated the move to broadcast, which is seen as a pathway for opera to become more affordable and accessible to a wider audience.

McDonald-Hummingbird, the nurse, said she's optimistic that opera is opening up. A Black woman and a member of Laguna Pueblo, she discovered opera as a kid and now performs concerts tapping into Italian arias and gospel songs.

"I used to pretend in my mind that I was dressed up in the gown. It's so powerful. It's a gift from the Creator," she said. "I wish it were possible for every child who has never had the opportunity to experience that."

On stage, opera is getting more diverse. "Figaro" starred soprano Ying Fang, of China, as Susanna.

Vazquez, the daughter of Cuban and Colombian immigrants, said she had doubts early in her career that she could make it as a Latina singer.

​​"I was looking at the big stages all over the world and I never saw anyone that really looked like me. I thought maybe I needed a backup. And my parents were on board with that," she said, with a chuckle. As she studied music though, she saw more Hispanic stars getting top billing, giving her a boost. She said to herself, "Oh I can do this too."

Vazquez added her own twist to the plot, incorporating her very real pregnancy into the drama of the show. As the countess with the womanizing husband, she paused several times framing her belly with her hands.

"It really raises the stakes for her, for Countess," Vasquez said. "She has her child to think about and it gives this hopeful desire or objective of keeping her family together."

AP journalist Ron Blum in Denver contributed reporting to this story.

State Paid $1.5M To Show Logo During Virgin Galactic FlightKOB-TV, Associated Press

New Mexico spent $1.5 million to advertise the state during the Virgin Galactic space launch Sunday.

The state paid the money to display New Mexico's logo on video of the flight, KOB-TV reported.

The flight saw Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson briefly rocket into space aboard the company's winged space plane for the first time.

A third of the money came from a $500,000 special appropriation by the New Mexico Legislature to market and promote the state during the flight and the rest came from the Tourism Department's budget, department spokesman Cody Johnson said..

"We actually have a conservative estimate of around $3.5 million in media value just from the event itself and again that's a pretty conservative estimate, because we've seen so much coverage and viewership of the live stream, that it's going to grow over the coming days and weeks," Johnson said earlier this week.

Autopsy Finds Teenage Girl Died From Dog Attack On Navajo Nation - By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

An autopsy has confirmed that a 13-year-old girl was killed by a pack of dogs while taking a walk near her family's home on the Navajo Nation.

Lyssa Rose Upshaw had extensive injuries that were consistent with canine teeth marks, including cuts and abrasions on her neck and head and deep soft tissue wounds on her legs. Her clothes were torn, and she was covered in dirt, according to the autopsy released this week in response to a public records request from The Associated Press.

While her mother, Marissa Jones, suspected dogs since she saw her daughter curled up off a dirt trail in Fort Defiance in mid-May, she had been awaiting an official cause.

"I never thought that would ever happen to my daughter," she said. "She was a dog lover."

The medical examiner's office in Coconino County classified Upshaw's death as accidental. The deadly attack has renewed discussion across the reservation about how to hold people accountable for their pets.

Tribal lawmakers recently passed a resolution to establish criminal penalties. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez vetoed it, saying it didn't go far enough and needs more input.

At least a handful of deaths on the Navajo Nation over the years have been blamed on dog packs, and numerous other people have been injured. None of the tribe's animal control laws, which are considered civil offenses, holds dog owners responsible for deaths.

Michael Henderson, the tribe's criminal investigations director, said tribal charges are being considered in Upshaw's death as authorities gather more evidence and await results for specimens collected from the dogs that belonged to a neighbor.

"The case is pretty far from being closed, far from being just put aside as an accident or a civil matter or anything like that," he said. "We're still very aggressively pursuing to understand the case to the extent to where if there are any criminal elements attached to what happened."

The FBI is conducting some of the lab testing. Henderson said he has spoken with federal prosecutors whose initial response was that the case is not one that could be charged under a limited set of crimes for which the federal government has jurisdiction on tribal land.

Tribes have concurrent jurisdiction but often seek federal charges because they carry much stiffer penalties than under tribal law. The maximum time in jail that the Navajo Nation could impose for any crime, regardless of the severity, is one year.

Esther Winne, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for Arizona, couldn't say whether Upshaw's case has been referred to federal prosecutors. The FBI did not respond to a message from the AP.

Jones said her "baby girl" who had aspirations of running on the high school cross country team deserved more compassion and sympathy from the neighbors who owned the dogs and more attention from investigators on the case.

She has been pushing for jail time and fines for whoever is found responsible, though Henderson acknowledged there's not a clear path.

"I'm hoping and I'm praying for my daughter to get her justice," Jones said.

Numbers Explain How And Why West Bakes, Burns And Dries Out - By Seth Borenstein, AP Science Writer

The American West is baking, burning and drying in intertwined extreme weather. Four sets of numbers explain how bad it is now, while several others explain why it got this bad.

The West is going through "the trifecta of an epically dry year followed by incredible heat the last two months and now we have fires," said University of California Merced climate and fire scientist John Abatzoglou. "It is a story of cascading impacts."

And one of climate change, the data shows.

RECORD HEAT

In the past 30 days, the country has set 585 all-time heat records, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Of those, 349 are for daily high temperatures and 236 are the warmest overnight low temperatures, which are vital for people to recover from deadly heat waves.

And this doesn't include Death Valley hitting 130 degrees preliminarily. If this is confirmed, it would be the hottest temperature on Earth in decades — and several meteorologists say it would be the hottest reliable temperature recorded because many don't trust the accuracy  of two hotter records.

A different part of Death Valley likely set the world record on July 11 for hottest 24-hour period by averaging the daily high and overnight low to come up with 118.1, according to meteorologist Maximiliano Herrera, who tracks weather extremes.

The average daily high temperature for the entire area from the Rockies and westward in June was 85.7 degrees, which beat the old record by 1.3 degrees, according to NOAA.

SEVERE DROUGHT

Nearly 60% of the U.S. West is considered in exceptional or extreme drought, the two highest categories, according to the University of Nebraska's Drought Monitor. That's the highest percentage in the 20 years the drought monitor has been keeping track. Less than 1% of the West is not in drought or considered abnormally dry, also a record.

LOW SOIL MOISTURE

How much moisture in the soil is key because normally part of the sun's energy is used to evaporate moisture in the soil and plants. Also, when the soil and plants are dry, areas burn much more often and hotter in wildfires and the available water supply shrinks for places like California, a "true indicator of just how parched things are," Abatzoglou said.

Both NOAA  and NASA show soil moisture levels down to some of the lowest recorded levels for much of the West. Most of California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Idaho are drier than in 99% of other years.

WILDFIRES BURNING

There are 68 active large fires burning, consuming 1,038,003 acres of land, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. With those fires and ones in Canada, there is "one large area of smoke over much of the U.S. and Canada," NOAA said Tuesday.

So far this year, wildfires have burned 2.2 million, which is less than the 10-year average for this time of year. But that may change because dry plants are at extra high risk of burning in much of the West as shown in what experts call fire's energy release component.

HOW WE GOT HERE

"The heat wave story cannot be viewed as an isolated extreme event, but rather part of a longer story of climate change with more related, widespread and varying impacts," said climate scientist Jennifer Francis of the Woodwell Climate Research Center on Cape Cod.

SUMMERS GETTING HOTTER

From 1991 to 2020, summers in the Rockies and westward have on average become 2.7 degrees warmer. The West is warming faster than the rest of the United States and the globe.

MORE HEAT DOMES FROM WEAKER JET STREAM

The weather phenomenon that is roasting the West now and that brought 116-degree temperatures to Portland, Oregon, at the end of June is often called a heat dome — where high pressure parks over an area and warm air sinks. This usually happens when the jet stream — the river of air that brings weather to places — gets stuck and doesn't move storms along.

Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann found the number of times the jet stream stalls in the Northern Hemisphere  is increasing from about six times a summer in the early 1980s to about eight times a summer now.

"We've shown climate change is making these stuck summer jet stream patterns more common," Mann said.

LESS RAIN

The West on average received 13.6 inches of snow and rain from July 2020 to June 2021. Over the last 10 years, the region has averaged a bit more than 19 inches of precipitation a year in the middle of what scientists call a megadrought. In the 1980s and 1990s, before the megadrought started, the West averaged nearly 22 inches of rain.

A 2020 study said "global warming has pushed what would have been a moderate drought in southwestern North America into megadrought territory."

MORE WILDFIRES

From 2011 to 2020, on average 7.5 million burned in wildfires each year. That's more than double the average of 3.6 million a year from 1991 to 2000, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center.

It's not just more acres burned, but more "very very large fires," said UC Merced's Abatzoglou, noting that the combination of drought and heat means plants are more likely to burn and fires to get bigger.

"The drought we've had this year and the warm temperatures has allowed the fire season to come on hard and really, really early," he said.

Weather Service: Showers, Thunderstorms May Cause FloodingAssociated Press

The National Weather Service warns that numerous showers and thunderstorms are expected over western and northern New Mexico on Wednesday, creating the potential for heavy rainfall and flash flooding.

A  flood watch was issued for regions that include the cities of Albuquerque, Gallup, Farmington and Santa Fe from noon through late Wednesday night.

The watch says "many thunderstorms will be capable of producing heavy to torrential rainfall" and that some areas could receive more than 2 inches of rain from the strongest storms.

According to the weather service, "areas that have recently received heavy rainfall are likely to have saturated soils and will be susceptible to abrupt runoff and flash flooding."

The flood watch also said burn scars from recent wildfires will be vulnerable to flash flooding.

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