The heat dome couldn’t have come at a worse time for Jake Sterino, the owner of Sterino Farms in Puyallup.

Raspberry and blackberries are harvested about every three days as it ripens and tastes best earlier in the monthlong window, he said.

But record high temperatures last month hit Washington and the Pacific Northwest region just as the fruit was starting to peak and just before the Fourth of July weekend when demand is highest.

He estimates at least half of his crop lay wasted on the ground after being burned by the sun. The lettuce and cabbage seem fine for now, but he is waiting to see whether the heat triggered the plants to flower earlier.

While the total loss is still being calculated across the region, Washington state lawmakers are seeking additional aid for farmers and ranchers like Sterino, who lost livestock and crops due to ongoing extreme heat, drought and wildfires.

On Tuesday, a group of 44 House and Senate members led by Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina, urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to explore “all potential flexibilities” for more relief to overcome the crisis.

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The letter addressed to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was also spearheaded by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside. Every congress member and senator in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana and North Dakota signed on, along with members from California, Colorado, Minnesota and Wyoming.

“Although the extent of damages relating to the extreme heat has yet to be fully determined, agricultural producers expect these impacts to be severe,” lawmakers wrote.

The “heat dome” the Pacific Northwest experienced last month broke records for all-time high temperatures across the region. While it reached 108 degrees in Seattle, temperatures climbed higher in other parts of the state and region, alarming farmers.

DelBene spokesperson Nick Martin said destructive disasters are often thought of as wildfires and droughts in the West. But the heat dome, he said, was such a new phenomena that it may not be covered by emergency funds.

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Vilsack granted disaster designations to dozens of Northwest counties in recent weeks, giving agricultural producers access to emergency USDA loans. But many who experienced losses, lawmakers said, are not in those designated counties or in counties covered by existing drought assistance programs.

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More heat waves are expected to impact the Western and Central states in July and the drought is predicted to last through October. Gov. Jay Inslee declared an emergency drought declaration to cover nearly all of Washington earlier this month. The declaration is geared especially toward helping farmers and fish populations, which have been hard hit by extended drought and high summer temperatures.

Unprecedented conditions

While the total for official losses won’t be available until later this year, presidents of various grower associations have estimated damages and emphasized the unprecedented nature of the heat wave. 

Sterino, whose farm provides produce for groceries like Fred Meyer and Safeway, is a fourth-generation farmer who has grown berries in the Puyallup Valley for more than 30 years. He said he has never heard of a heat wave as intense as the one that scorched in late June, or had to think about disaster relief funds before. 

“When you lose over half your crop, I consider that a disaster,” he said.

Without climate change, record Pacific Northwest heat wave would have been near impossible, researchers say

B.J. Thurlby, president of the Northwest Cherry Growers estimates about 20% of the overall crop was lost — largely in Yakima Valley where cherries were about to be picked.

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Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Blueberry Commission, estimates around $85 million in damages between total yield loss and the number of blueberries that would have had a higher quality rating had they not been spoiled. 

The industry has been growing larger each year, he said. About 170 million pound of blueberries were projected to be produced in Washington this year. The heat caused a 28 million pound loss in the state, according to Schreiber, who said Oregon and British Columbia was hit even worse. 

One variety of blueberries was so severely damaged that the plant is expected to have reduced yields next harvest, he said. Farmers had never seen how the plant would fare above 110 degrees. 

“This was an unprecedented event, the likes we’ve never seen and there are things that happened that were just beyond our ability to imagine it,” he said. 

The Seattle Times is tracking locations of wildfires across the Pacific Northwest. Visit seattletimes.com to use the interactive map, which will be updated throughout the fire season.