130 Deaths Blamed on California Heat Wave

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 29, 2006

LOS ANGELES, July 28 -- The death toll from California's 12-day heat wave topped 130 on Friday as coroners documented more cases of mostly elderly victims found dead during the record-breaking temperatures.

In Stanislaus County in the Central Valley, where temperatures hovered at 115 for the past two weeks, the heat wave killed 29 and is believed to be the single deadliest event in the county since the 1918 global outbreak of the Spanish flu. At the antiquated county coroner's office there, four scented candles burned near the front door to cover the smell, according to the Modesto Bee.

In Fresno County, Coroner Loralee Cervantes said 27 deaths were suspected to be heat-related. "We usually have one or two a year," she said. "This has just been incredible."

Temperatures eased slightly Friday but still broke 100 in many parts of central California. "They are trending down a little, but California is still facing ridiculous heat," said Dennis Feltgen, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Adding to the heat woes were warnings of flash floods for parts of San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties hit by one of more than a dozen wildfires that have erupted around the state in recent weeks.

The heat has spread misery across the nation, and little relief appears in sight. The National Weather Service is predicting 97-degree highs for the District by Monday.

Storms last week knocked out power in parts of St. Louis, leaving hundreds of thousands to suffer without air conditioning; a dozen people have died in Missouri. In California, more than 1 million have lost power. State authorities were on the verge of implementing rolling blackouts on electrical customers because of the demand from air conditioners when the weather relented -- ever so slightly -- allowing the power to continue to flow.

California's heat wave, which began July 16, has been unusual because it has lasted so long, the temperatures were so high and the whole state -- from its deserts in the south to the forested north -- was affected.

The heat wave has threatened California's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry. Rendering facilities for livestock carcasses were so overloaded that regulators eased environmental regulations to allow livestock and dairy farmers to bury dead animals on their own land or in landfills, said Jay Van Rein, a spokesman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Van Rein said in some areas livestock farmers were reporting mortality rates twice as high as normal.

California is the nation's leading milk producer, and state Farm Bureau Federation spokeswoman Ann Schmidt-Fogarty said production had fallen by 15 to 20 percent. She said that the peach crop would be the worst in 20 years and that cotton, pistachios, walnuts, avocados, plums and nectarines would also be affected.

Schmidt-Fogarty said the bureau was concerned that fruit pickers were in danger because of the heat. At least two farmworkers and four others who worked outside are believed to have died from heat stroke, said Marc Grossman, a spokesman for the United Farm Workers, a union that represents fruit pickers and other agricultural laborers. The cases are being investigated by state authorities.

"We've really been trying very, very hard to stagger shifts or create half-days," Schmidt-Fogarty said, "but the paradox is the fruit is ripening so fast in this heat that we have this delicate balance of keeping people healthy and getting in the crop."

In 2005, after the death of four farmworkers in the Central Valley, California officials issued the first state regulations in the nation to prevent heat illness and death for outdoor workers. Schmidt-Fogarty said she and the farmers she has been speaking with have never felt such heat. "Fresno is usually pretty hot this time of year, but the people who live there couldn't believe what they were experiencing."

In Sacramento, the heat was so bad that the Farm Bureau building's air-conditioning system broke down, and the building got so hot that its fire alarms went off.

Hundreds of thousands have flocked to cooling centers and air-conditioned malls around the state. Hundreds of thousands more went to the coast, where it was cooler, often by as much as 30 degrees. On Friday, Cindy Bolina, a 22-year-old community college student from the San Fernando Valley, came to stroll the Third Street Promenade in coastal Santa Monica because, she said, "the malls are too crowded in my neighborhood, and I wanted to be outside."

Like many here, Bolina said the heat wave made her think about global warming, even though experts cautioned against a direct link between the recent high temperatures and a global trend.

"This is breaking all the records, so of course I'm thinking about global warming," she said. "I don't care what the experts say -- this is just too hot."

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