Randal Craig tries to cool off Wednesday in Little Rock, which hit a record high of 114 degrees.
LITTLE ROCK — Searing heat smothered the state in triple-digit temperatures Wednesday, breaking all-time records in Little Rock at 114 degrees, in Fort Smith at 115 and in Harrison at 112.
The highs were only a few degrees shy of the 118-degree recording Wednesday in Death Valley, Calif. — a spot in the Mojave Desert famous for its blistering heat.
“It’s baking,” said Scott Meyer, general manager of the Fort Smith Holiday Inn. “If you walk on the asphalt, you can feel the heat cooking your legs. It’s unreal.”
By 2 p.m. Wednesday, every city in Arkansas that reports temperatures to the National Weather Service showed readings topping 100 degrees. Some storms popped up in western and northern Arkansas by late afternoon, offering a brief respite.
The heat also led the state’s largest electricity and water utilities to issue cautions.
Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. said the heat wave could lead to brownouts — a curtailment of power — to lessen the load on transmission lines. Entergy Arkansas and Central Arkansas Water asked customers to voluntarily reduce their usage amid higher-than-usual demand.
The National Weather Service has extended excessive heat warnings for the entire state through today. However, temperatures are expected to remain above average for at least the next week, said Chuck Rickard, a National Weather Service meteorologist in North Little Rock.
In Fort Smith, the mercury steadily climbed Wednesday. It was 103 degrees at 11 a.m. and 112 by 2 p.m. At 5 p.m., the 115-degree mark set the hottest temperature for the Sebastian County town, breaking the previous high of 113 degrees set on Aug. 10, 1936 and tied on Tuesday.
It was the city’s 30th consecutive day of 100-degree temperatures.
Little Rock reached 114 degrees at 2:40 p.m. Wednesday, edging out the 112-degree record set on July 31, 1986.
Harrison’s 112-degree reading broke a record set in 1934, the National Weather Service said on its website. A specific date for the record was not given.
‘JUST LIKE DEATH VALLEY’
Most of the highest readings were in the Arkansas River Valley in the western half of the state, Rickard said.
“It’s been fairly dry there for the past few months,” he said. “It’s a valley. The air sinks and stays warm. The dry heat warms up more, and it gets hot. It’s just like Death Valley.”
Humidity levels were at about 25 percent in the western half of the state Wednesday, Rickard said. In the eastern half, the levels reached 40 percent, causing heat indexes to reach 115-120 degrees.
The heat index measures how hot it feels when relative humidity is combined with the actual air temperature.
A dome of high pressure has stalled over the southern United States, baking the region Wednesday.
McAlester, Okla., recorded an all-time high Wednesday of 113 degrees, breaking its 112-degree record set on July 17, 1954. Tulsa reached 112 degrees; and Dallas, Shreveport and Oklahoma City sweltered in 108-degree highs.
Numerous Arkansas cities broke records for having the hottest Aug. 3 temperatures. Russellville reached 115 degrees, and Harrison and Mount Ida hit 112 degrees.
Searcy, Batesville and Mountain Home saw 111 degrees for highs; Fayetteville and Pine Bluff recorded 110 degrees; and Mena, Siloam Springs, Eureka Springs, Rogers and Batesville recorded 109-degree highs.
The highest temperature ever recorded in Arkansas was 120 degrees in Ozark on Aug. 10, 1936. The Franklin County town reached a high of 108 degrees Monday, the most recent temperature available from the National Weather Service.
“It’s just burning,” said Brenda Franks, an employee of the Daisy Queen on Arkansas 7 in Harrison.
She said customers have flocked toward vanilla ice cream and drinks.
“The heat is the topic of the town,” she said.
In Little Rock, children stayed indoors at the Bright Ideas Enrichment Center on Otter Creek Road because of the heat, director Jennifer Berry said.
“When it gets past 10 a.m., we don’t let them go outside,” she said.
Officials in the capital city pulled the Public Works Department employees off the streets at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday when the heat index reached 105 degrees, the earliest the employees have knocked off from work all summer.
“They only got about 2 /2 hours of work before we shut them down,” said Eric Petty, the department’s operations manager.
Trash trucks in Little Rock are running routes a half-hour earlier than usual because of the heat, but not solely for the sake of the workers, who sit in air-conditioned cabs.
“The trucks also suffer. All this heat is hard on the trucks’ hydraulics,” said Warren Atkins, who oversees Little Rock’s Solid Waste Division.
The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department also is making adjustments during the heat, spokesman Glenn Bolick said.
Beginning this week, the department’s estimated 2,000 highway maintenance employees will convert from four-day workweeks to five-day workweeks so that they can get most of their work done before 2:30 p.m.
“This is getting them out of the hottest part of the day,” Bolick said.
Matt DeCample, a spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said the governor met with Arkansas Department of Education officials Wednesday to suggest that superintendents across the state open school cafeterias and gymnasiums to be used as cooling shelters if needed.
Also, officials with the Arkansas Activities Association met with superintendents Wednesday to ensure that coaches provide water and take other precautions on high school football fields as teams begin practice this week. The association has limited practices to two a day for a total of five hours, with breaks in between.
“We’re used to the heat, but not this kind of heat,” said Don Brodell, assistant executive director of the association.
Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. — the state’s second-largest power company — warned Wednesday of brownouts if record usage keeps up.
The need for controlled brownouts to relieve the load on the system hasn’t happened yet, but “we’re close to it,” spokesman Doug White said.
The cooperatives and other utilities have not made “a great deal of investment for new transmission over the past decade, [putting them] in a fairly tenuous position,” he said.
On Wednesday, for the third-straight day, the utility set a power-use record of at least 2,300 megawatts.
One megawatt powers about 500 average-sized homes during normal weather and 200 homes during extremely hot weather, according to estimates.
Meanwhile, Entergy Arkansas asked its customers in central Arkansas to voluntarily reduce their usage of electricity until 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Entergy did not provide an exact use figure, but spokesman Dan Daugherty said demand has approached record levels.
Southwestern Electric Power Co., which serves about 114,000 customers in western Arkansas, hit an unofficial record demand of 5,375 megawatts Wednesday over its three-state area, the third-straight day for a record, spokesman Peter Main said.
It was the sixth time this summer that SWEPCO exceeded 5,000 megawatts of usage, Main said.
Oklahoma Gas & Electric Co., which has about 66,000 customers in western Arkansas, set a record for its Oklahoma and Arkansas customers of 6,926 megawatts Monday. Usage likely exceeded 7,000 megawatts Tuesday, although Tuesday’s official total had not been tabulated, a company spokesman said Wednesday.
Southwest Power Pool, which coordinates power systems in all or parts of nine states, including Arkansas, said it set a regional electricity demand record of 54,949 megawatts Tuesday, surpassing the previous record set Monday by about 400 megawatts.
Central Arkansas Water, which serves 398,000 customers, is urging people to avoid watering lawns from 5 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. — the peak hours of water usage — spokesman Gary Hum said.
He said customers used an average of 102 million gallons of water a day in July. Normal use is about 62 million gallons a day.
The heat is also taking its toll on farming and ranching in the state, John Lewis of the National Weather Service told the Arkansas Agriculture Board.
“One thing we can say about last year is we had more rain. This year is much drier, and the drought continues to move its way north,” Lewis said.
He said the high-pressure system causing the current heat wave should start gradually moving west over the next few weeks, but “temperatures will remain high.”
He said an extreme drought that up until recently had been touching only the southern parts of Columbia and Union counties along the Louisiana border has now engulfed Ashley and Chicot counties and will continue spreading northward.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of the state is in a moderate drought, with pockets of abnormally dry areas.
The heat is hurting the quality of row crops.
“There are two factors that dictate how much a farmer gets, that is yield and quality,” said Ray Vester, a rice farmer near Stuttgart who is on the Agriculture Board.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, less than half of the soybeans, cotton and corn in the state are in good to excellent condition.
“This is the kind of year that will break a man’s soul,” said Rick Cartwright, associate director of Agriculture and Natural Resources for the University of Arkansas.
This summer’s high heat, coupled with dry forecasts, have also elevated the number of wildfires that the Arkansas Forestry Commission is dealing with.
State Forester John Shannon reported that there were 483 wildfires in June and July — a 224 percent increase from the year before, when there were 149 wildfires. The 10-year average for wildfires in the state during June and July is about 155.
During those months this year, about 5,055 acres were consumed by wildfire. Last year, about 1,329 acres were effected by wildfires — a 280 percent increase this year.
“I used to say you would need napalm to start a fire in June in Arkansas,” Shannon said. “But that’s just not the case anymore.”
Forecasters call for a slight chance of rain Friday as a system pushes into the northern part of the state, and that will lower temperatures for a brief spell, Rickard said.
“It could be 10 to 15 degrees cooler in some spots, but it’s 10 to 15 degrees cooler than 110 degrees,” Rickard said. “We’ll still see oppressive heat.”
Information for this article was contributed by Kristin Netterstrom, Noel E. Oman, Paul Quinn, David Smith and Tracie Dungan of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.