What it’s like to work in Death Valley, where businesses face 130-degree weather, flash floods, and dwindling tourists

Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley, 1979
Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley, 1979

  • Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth. This July, local temperatures reached 130 degrees.
  • Extreme heat, the deadliest weather hazard in the US, is becoming more common due to climate change.
  • From a rural opera house to a Mexican meat market, see what it’s like to work in Death Valley.

When Jenni Williams went to snap a picture of the Death Valley thermometer reaching what looked like a record-breaking 135 degrees, her camera broke.

Things are always breaking in the hottest place on Earth, said Brooke Grey, a 23-year-old hotel manager at The Amargosa Opera House and one of Death Valley Junction’s few permanent residents. Water pipes, roofs, cameras, and tourists, the harsh heat governs everything in the small desert town.

Summers in Death Valley are always extreme, but this July broke world records. On July 9, the temperature was hot enough to cook a medium-rare steak.

Tourists posed next to the visitor center thermometer in bikinis and t-shirts, their skin pink and sweaty. The digital screen read 135 degrees, though park officials later announced it was actually five degrees cooler.

Death Valley’s highest recorded temperature is 134 degrees in 1913, but the accuracy of that measurement is widely debated among scientists. Some believe the latest 130-degree reading, which ties last August’s, could be the modern world record.

Visitors used to come all the way from Europe and Asia to hike through the park, at times a perilous journey. On Friday, 68-year-old Douglas Branham was found dead during his 12-mile round trip through Death Valley’s salt flats.

Not a lot of people can withstand that kind of weather, let alone make a living in it.

“The current population of Death Valley Junction is 2.7,” Fred Conboy, president of Amargosa Opera House, told Insider in an email, noting that Wilsoncat (the hotel pet) counts as 0.7 percent human.

“At the moment, the wild horses who come in from the desert are greater in number than our hotel guests,” Conboy added. “We provide hay and water critical for their survival during the brutal heat.”

Grey missed my first phone call because she was stranded at home by life-threatening flash floods in a rare desert downpour. July in Death Valley is also the local monsoon season, she explained.

“I definitely think about climate change a lot living here,” Grey said. “Number one, the heat is becoming intolerable. Number two, when you see it rain the way it did the other day, and to know Death Valley used to be underwater – what makes us think that it couldn’t become underwater again?”

As the pandemic kept tourists who visit Death Valley National Park at home, Amargosa Opera House was forced to close its doors. Founded in 1967, New York City ballerina Marta Becket used to put on dance and mime shows at the hotel, often without an audience.

Decades later the isolation remains, but a different young woman sits behind the front desk. “I’m the last woman standing,” Grey said. “Throughout the pandemic, we lost quite a bit of our staff.”

Don Connolly is the self appointed mayor of Ballarat--mining ghost town, just outside border of Death Valley National Park, 2001.
Don Connolly is the self appointed mayor of Ballarat, a mining ghost town, just outside border of Death Valley National Park, 2001.

Death Valley’s Martell Market is, for lack of better words, “in the middle of nowhere.” Even so, the retired couple Ed and Sunny Martell have successfully run the business for 12 years now. A quick glance at the market’s Yelp page shows a shocking number of 5-star reviews raving about the desert’s one-stop shop.

One reviewer said that the Martell’s saved her life after her car became stuck in quicksand. When two towing companies said they couldn’t reach her, they suggested calling Martell market – whose services range from Vietnamese food and trimming Wilsoncat’s fur to rescue missions.

Ed isn’t fazed by Death Valley’s increase in heat as much as he is by the decrease in customers. Upkeep is costly, especially the AC bill, and they had to shut down for months during the pandemic.

Grey said the hotel only made $4,000 this month, while July expenses added up to $10,000. The hotel’s performances and cafe used to provide extra cash if bookings dried up, but there’s not enough staff to reopen.

“I’ve never had to close the hotel because we don’t have check-ins,” Grey said. “That’s what I’m having to do now, there’s a lot of days when we don’t have anyone here.”

When Grey first arrived in the desert two years ago, she came across a man selling crystals from his camper van. Behind him was a giant trough of cold water.

“He said it was for emergency cooling, in case something happened,” she said. “People here are prepared … some of them.”

Carniceria La Piedad, a butcher shop 30 minutes outside of Death Valley Junction, is run by Josephine Lucro and her two kids. Lucro immigrated from Mexico to Las Vegas and opened up Death Valley’s first Mexican meat market in 2005. The shop stayed open during the pandemic as an essential service, one of the few groceries in the area.

“We basically had to feed everybody here,” Lucro’s son, Jose Parra said. “Especially with the meat shortages at Walmart and Albertsons … I think we all helped everyone stay at home during those months.”

Parra said that an important part of running a business in Death Valley is never going outside unless you have to, and staying hydrated constantly. “The heat here is no joke,” he said.

Grey said working in the hottest place in the world is both a blessing and a curse. “It’s great to be secluded and be the gem that people stumble upon,” she said. “But if we were in a more populated area more people could come visit the hotel.”

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Utah is encouraging people to catch up to twice the fish they’re normally allowed as rising water temperatures threaten to kill off supplies

fishing
  • Utah is loosening fishing restrictions as drought and hot temperatures threaten to kill fish.
  • The state says the changes will allow anglers to “harvest additional fish prior to fish loss.”
  • Warm water has less dissolved oxygen. For fish, this can stunt growth, cause disease, and even kill.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Utah officials are loosening limits on fishing, in some cases allowing people to catch and keep twice as many fish as they previously could, as heat and drought conditions threaten fish survival this summer.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has made emergency amendments to its fishing guidelines twice so far this year. The first, made in late May, applies to several reservoirs, allowing anglers there to catch and keep more fish of various species.

This change was made “in anticipation of low water levels due to drought conditions,” the division said in a press release at the time.

“Fish loss is expected due to adverse conditions,” the division said on its website. “The intentions of these regulation changes are to liberalize harvest and provide anglers the opportunity to harvest additional fish prior to fish loss, if loss occurs.”

Droughts reduce the water available in various water bodies. Smaller amounts of water heat more quickly and reach hotter temperatures than larger amounts of water. In addition, hotter water has less dissolved oxygen than colder water. These factors combined put fish at risk for stunted growth, disease, and sometimes death.

The division said at the time that it would also cut back on fish stocking in the affected waters to “minimize the amount of fish that may die as a result of the anticipated low water levels.”

“Despite low water levels in some lakes, fishing will be very good in a lot of places this summer,” Sportfish Coordinator Randy Oplinger said in the press release at the time. “The number of waters where we are expecting drought impacts is very small, and we anticipate that the majority of waterbodies, including the major fisheries in the state, won’t be affected.”

The change will stay in effect until the end of October.

Another change, implemented last month, was “prompted by ongoing hot, dry conditions,” according to the division’s website. This amendment allows people to catch and keep more trout when fishing.

“Community fisheries are small ponds and it is anticipated that temperatures in these ponds this summer will exceed the maximum temperature tolerated by trout,” the division said on its website.

This change will remain in place through August.

Heat waves and drought have swept many parts of the country already this summer. Last month, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox asked residents to take part in a “weekend of humble prayer for rain.” Meanwhile, drought maps indicate the western US is the driest it has been in two decades. Last month, the Pacific Northwest suffered a massive heatwave, in which Portland recorded its hottest day ever.

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30 million people are under extreme heat alerts as parts of the West see record high temperatures

Extreme heat warning sign California
The Western US has seen extreme temperatures so far this year

  • More than 30 million people are under excessive heat warnings in the US.
  • Parts of the West have been facing record-breaking high temperatures for weeks.
  • June 2021 was the hottest June ever recorded in the US, according to the NOAA.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

More than 30 million people are under excessive heat warnings or heat advisories as record temperatures are experienced in the West, according to the National Weather Service.

Death Valley in Eastern California reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday, one of the hottest recorded temperatures on earth. Forecasters warned temperatures on Sunday could be just as high, encouraging people to heed warnings and not put themselves or first responders in danger in the extreme heat.

An all-time high temperature of 117 degrees was recorded Saturday evening at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, causing flights to be canceled or delayed.

Read more: The Biden administration has named a secretive private equity mogul with significant investment interests in climate-related businesses to help shape the US’s response to the climate crisis

Some cities in California experienced record high temperatures on Saturday, including 120 degrees in Palm Springs, The Los Angeles Times reported. Officials in the state asked residents to conserve electricity due to the toll on state’s power grid and threats from wildfires.

Areas of the Western US have been experiencing dangerously high temperatures for weeks. Hundreds of deaths and more than 1,100 hospitalizations were linked to a brutal heat wave in the Pacific Northwest late last month.

Some Northwest cities experienced multiple days in a row of triple-digit temperatures. The heatwaves and accompanying power outages forced some people out of their homes and into cooling centers.

June 2021 was the hottest June ever recorded in the US, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Have a news tip? Contact this reporter at kvlamis@insider.com.

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Biden seizes on extreme weather to tout infrastructure: ‘We gotta make lemonades out of lemons here’

President Joe Biden.
President Joe Biden.

  • Extreme heat is hitting the west coast as experts see increased wildfire potential for the region.
  • Biden met with western governors to tout his infrastructure plan as a remedy to the climate crisis.
  • “We gotta make lemonades out of lemons here,” he told lawmakers about climate change.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Extreme heat is hitting the west coast just as wildfire season is approaching, and experts predict above-normal fire potential for much of the region, which could have devastating impacts.

The record heat wave has melted power cables in Portland and hospitals in the west are seeing an influx of patients due to heat, prompting President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to meet with western governors to discuss best methods for wildfire preparation and prevention.

Biden said his bipartisan infrastructure deal could be part of the solution.

“We gotta make lemonades out of lemons here,” Biden said during a Wednesday roundtable with Western governors. “We have a chance to do something that not only deals with the problem today, but allows us to be in a position to move forward – and create real good jobs, by the way, generate economic growth.”

Last week, Biden reached an agreement with a bipartisan group of senators on a near $1 trillion infrastructure proposal, including $579 billion in new spending largely focused on rebuilding physical infrastructure. But as Biden noted during the roundtable, the plan also includes $50 billion to build resilience to extreme weather events, like wildfires, along with increasing firefighter pay to $15 an hour to ensure they are “fairly paid for the grueling work they are willing to take on,” according to a White House fact sheet.

Although Biden is promoting the bipartisan deal as a climate remedy, Democratic lawmakers have criticized the plan for cutting many climate-related elements out of the president’s initial proposal. For example, as Insider previously reported, $213 billion for affordable, green housing was cut from the plan, along with $35 billion in climate research.

That’s why many Democrats are calling for the bipartisan deal to be passed alongside a reconciliation bill that would include the care-economy measures cut, like affordable housing and free community college, along with substantial climate-related measures.

“I’ve said all along: no climate, no deal,” Democratic Sen. Ed Markey wrote on Twitter last week. “The bipartisan framework doesn’t get us there. So I agree with our leadership that this must be resolved in reconciliation. Until then, I’m still no climate, no deal – let’s get this done.”

The White House’s domestic climate adviser, Gina McCarthy, said during a forum held by Punchbowl News on Wednesday that the reconciliation bill should include robust climate investments, saying that they “do have some bottom lines in this.”

A memo written by McCarthy and White House senior adviser Anita Dunn said that Biden remains committed to “using all the tools at his disposal” to fight the climate crisis.

They wrote: “As we work to pass the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, we will also continue to advance the full suite of proposals in the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan through additional congressional action, including budget reconciliation, to ensure we build back our economy and country better.”

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