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Rains Bring Little Relief From Heat

Electricity use in the state hits a record as scattered showers in Southern California are accompanied by high humidity.

July 18, 2006|Hector Becerra and David Pierson | Times Staff Writers

Southern California traded one kind of hot for another Monday as some parts of the region were hit by rain and the dry heat of the weekend was replaced by mugginess.

The scattered rains that fell from Long Beach to Palm Springs caused temperatures to dip a few degrees, but meteorologists said the precipitation is little more than a desert mirage.

"All it does is wet the ground and give the sun something to burn off and put back up in the air to make us uncomfortable," said Jamie Meier, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Oxnard.

Temperatures, which are expected to increase in time for next weekend, further strained a California electricity grid that set an electricity-consumption record Monday.

Los Angeles' chafing under the sun mirrors a national trend. Virtually the entire United States is in the grip of a heat wave. Twenty-one states had at least one place that topped 100 degrees over the weekend, with Death Valley recording a high of 126. Los Angeles International Airport recorded a temperature of 88 degrees Sunday, breaking by one degree a heat record that dated back to 1954.

A high-pressure system in the drought-ridden Southwest has acted as a buffer against a cool jet stream that stretches snake-like across the border between Canada and the U.S. The system has kept cold air from Canada out of all but the northernmost parts of the country.

Southern California has felt the effect since last month, which was the second-hottest June ever recorded in downtown Los Angeles.

The high-pressure system has also pumped in subtropical moisture from the Mexican desert that has caused lightning and even sporadic thunderstorms.

Palm Springs recorded one-third of an inch of rain Monday, unusually high for a city that only gets about 5 inches a year.

"A third of an inch is not trivial for Palm Springs," said William Patzert, a meteorologist for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.

Other places that recorded traces of rain included Burbank, Hawthorne, Malibu and downtown L.A.

"This is what people ... call monsoon moisture," Patzert said. "But it's not going to give us any relief. It's going to make things worse, because it's going to make the heat more oppressive."

Robert Sosa had no quibbles with that logic as he searched Chinatown's Central Plaza for a tank top.

"I'm not used to this stickiness," the 33-year-old Pacoima resident said, pinching his cotton T-shirt. "This shirt is holding way too much humidity."

His wife and 1-year-old daughter had to take a break from the day of sightseeing to sit on a bench. But Sosa pressed on with his 4-year-old son, Bryan, who wanted to play on a child's mechanical ride.

"We have friends from Texas with us who are accustomed to this weather," Sosa said. "I keep telling them I'm not. I'm moving slow. I think we'll head back to the Valley and hopefully go to an air-conditioned mall."

Out in the wildfire front, an overnight storm drenched firefighters battling a cluster of blazes that have scorched more than 84,000 acres of desert and forest east of L.A.

The high humidity allowed firefighters to make progress on the 61,700-acre Sawtooth Complex fire. The blaze, ignited by lightning on July 9, was 70% contained and some crews in southern areas were being sent home.

There is a chance of more thunderstorms throughout the region, Meier said. However, she said, "with this kind of weather pattern ... that could be a double-edged sword."

"There's a chance we'll get the benefit of a wetting rain," Meier said. "But there's also a chance of debris flows and flash floods. Right now, things are so delicate that [thunderstorms] will likely do more harm than good."

But slight moisture also raises the chance of the kind of lightning that can start wildfires.

"There's not really enough rain to hit the surface of the earth, so it evaporates ... and we get humidity," Patzert said. "But the danger of that is dry lightning. So we could get more fires here."

Electricity consumption in the 75% of the state's grid controlled by the California Independent System Operator in Folsom posted a record Monday of 46,561 megawatts.

The previous record -- set last summer on July 20 -- of 45,431 megawatts was smashed at 1:30 p.m. Monday as many areas of the state sweltered in triple-digit temperatures. A megawatt supplies enough energy to power about 750 homes in Southern California.

Just as late-afternoon demand peaked at 2:41 p.m., Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the control room of the system operator to call for continued conservation.

At the same time, he praised grid managers for ensuring that the state had enough available electricity to satisfy record usage.

"Luckily, we increased our energy supply," Schwarzenegger said. "We are at this point in good shape."

Schwarzenegger urged Californians to turn off unneeded lights, keep windows closed when air conditioners are running and operate appliances such as washing machines only in the evening hours.

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