The top 4 weather events of 2021 in the Inland Northwest

historic PNW heat wave

SPOKANE, Wash. — The year 2021 was a year full of unusual weather in the Inland Northwest. The year started with a warm winter and a series of windstorms. Then came the driest six months in the history of the region, record heat, another bad fire season, a late start to winter weather, and one of the longest stretches of cold temperatures in the last five years. Needless to say, it wasn’t hard to find four major weather events to look back on this go-around!  Here they are, in chronological order, plus a few honorable mentions.

Deadly January Windstorm

Thumbnail Image

A storm system tracking across Canada brought in a wicked strong cold front on the morning of Wednesday, January 13. Winds gusted to over 70 mph as the front passed Spokane. In the two hours of peak winds, thousands of trees feel around Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. Some people had to wait a week until the lights came back on. Damage was particularly bad on the South Hill in Spokane. A doctor at Shriners Hospital for Children was killed when a tree fell on her car. A man from Post Falls was killed by a falling tree on the east side of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Others came close to a similar fate when trees fell on their homes. The storm created hundreds of tons of debris. Comstock Park in Spokane had such extensive tree damage that it wasn’t reopened until April.

No Rain and Record Drought

Severe Drought Devastates Washington State’s Wheat Crop

Ted S. Warren

A combine harvests wheat, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, near Pullman, Wash. Across eastern Washington, a drought the National Weather Service classified as "exceptional" has devastated what is normally the fourth largest wheat crop in the nation.

After a warm, soggy, and windy end to the winter, someone shut off the tap in spring. From March 1st to May 31st only 0.67 inches of rain fell in Spokane, second lowest in 140 years of records. The summer wasn’t much better. The six months from March through August only saw 1.37 inches of rain fall in Spokane. It was the least ever on record by over an inch. Such lack of rain led to severe consequences. As spring turned into summer drought turned from extreme to exceptional, the worst in 20 years and likely the worst since the drought of 1977. Crop failures in Washington and Idaho were widespread and devastating. The dry weather also turned the region into a tinderbox as fire season arrived on the calendar.

The Hottest Day Ever

The Northwest, Where Millions Live Without Air Conditioning, Faces Record Heat Wave This Weekend

CNN Weather

In a heat dome, high pressure acts as a lid on the atmosphere and as hot air tries to escape, the lid forces it back down, warming even more as it sinks.

In the midst of the growing drought, the unthinkable happened in late June. A strong high-pressure zone, the mother of all heat domes, brought the hottest weather that the Pacific Northwest has likely ever seen. At least 112 people in the Northwest died because of the extreme heat. Spokane hit its hottest temperature ever, 109 degrees, on June 29. Omak and Ephrata went over 115 to set new all-time records. The pavement on highways across Washington bled and buckled in the extreme heat. The heatwave wasn’t only severe, it was exceptionally long. Spokane was in the 90s for two unbroken weeks in late June and early July, including four straight days over 100. The heatwave created a flash drought on top of the drought that was already happening. It was the final straw to create the conditions that would bury another summer in wildfire smoke.

Another Bad Fire Season

Corkscrew Fire burns near Ford Aug. 16, 2021.
CREDIT: WSDOT East

In the aftermath of the heatwave, July became the hottest month (by average temperature) on record in Spokane. The summer overall would go on to be the hottest on record. Then the fires started and the smoke began to fill the air. Over 1.5 million acres burned in the Northwest before Labor Day, double the previous year. Firestorms triggered by the severe heat wave would send smoke into the Inland Northwest. If the smoke wasn’t coming down from Canada, it was coming up from California as megafires burned in the Northern part of that state. Fires forced evacuations weekly during the peak in July and August. Camping and hiking became difficult thanks to smoke and the closure of public lands. The large wildfires burning in the Northwest weren’t fully put out until late October.

Honorable Mentions

‘so Difficult’: Northwest Cold Forces Some Into Shelters

Elaine Thompson – staff, AP

  • Two more windstorms, one in March and one in November
  • A dust storm in late May in Washington
  • Strong thunderstorms in mid-June that created hail over 1 inch across
  • An arctic blast at the end of December with the coldest long-term weather in a decade
  • Atmospheric rivers flood B.C. and NW Washington, postpone ski season inland