By Molly O'Toole
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Fiery reds and oranges nearly covered the United States on meteorologist maps as a massive heat wave hit hard in much of the country on Saturday.
Temperatures averaged up to 15 degrees above normal, with most peaks in the 90s but over-100-degree heat expected to strike from Montana to New Mexico, according to lead meteorologists for The Weather Channel and The National Weather Service.
The NWS issued excessive heat warnings and watches for the Midwest from Texas to Canada, and heat index values over 110 degrees are possible for portions of the central and eastern U.S. by the middle of next week.
Locations affected are expected to see temperatures and heat indexes of up to 117 degrees, including cities like Minneapolis where that is unusual.
"The stage is being set for a massive heat wave to develop," the National Weather service had warned on Thursday.
Paired with oppressive humidity, the already high temperatures will feel even hotter, as measured by heat indexes.
"When your body temperatures rises on a hot day, as much as two liters of sweat can pour out of ... sweat glands each hour," Weather Channel Senior Meteorologist Jonathan Erdman stated on Saturday, meaning your body has a harder time keeping cool.
The latest wave is also dangerous because meteorologists predict it will hang on through as late as Friday of next week.
Following record heat that has already blasted the country in past weeks, the prolonged high temperatures are even more dangerous.
While the year is entering its hottest time -- the latter half of July -- an exceptional drought is exacerbating summer heat that has broken daily, monthly, and all-time record highs over the last couple of months.
Through spring and summer, drought and wildfires have affected millions of acres of cropland, forests and grasslands in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Friday.
In a statement directed to farmers and ranchers in states affected by extreme weather, the USDA said drought conditions stretch from Arizona to the southern Atlantic states.
In Colorado, the NWS forecasts temperatures to soar near triple digits in the northern part of the state over the weekend, after 10 straight days of monsoon rains.
The southern part of the state did not see the rains, and it remains in the grips of a multiyear drought that prompted Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper this week to request federal drought assistance in eight counties.
Most of Utah is expected to see temperatures in the 90s over the weekend, according to the NWS, which also issued a red-flag warning for extreme wildfire conditions in the southwest and central parts of the state.
Several deaths in Tennessee have been attributed to the prolonged heat wave -- in a few cases, due to a lack of proper air conditioning.
Memphis Light Gas and Water began an emergency reconnection program Friday for people who had been cut off for lack of payment, allowing them to be reconnected to the electricity that powers cooling systems for one price, no matter how much they owe.
Next week the massive high pressure ridge suppressing storm and cold fronts is expected to move from the central United States to the east, spreading still-increasing heat to the Mississippi and Ohio regions and East Coast.
(Additional reporting by Tim Ghianni in Nashville and Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Jerry Norton)