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Heat Hits Deadly Levels

July 26, 2006|Sharon Bernstein and Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writers

The suspected death toll from California's record heat wave rose to more than 50 Tuesday. Many of the victims were elderly people or transients unable to seek shelter from the oppressive heat.

Most died in the Central Valley, where temperatures have topped 100 for two weeks. The toll climbed as the state continued to cool down slightly and energy workers made progress in fixing overtaxed transformers that had left thousands without power.

Among the hardest hit was Fresno County, where hospitals are filled to capacity and the morgue is out of room for the first time in its history.

"We've never had this many before," said Fresno County Coroner Loralee Cervantes, who said she suspects that heat played a role in killing a third of those whose bodies lie in the morgue's refrigeration unit.

A survey of coroners around the state found an estimated 53 to 57 deaths under investigation as heat-related by late Tuesday. It will take up to four weeks to conduct the necessary autopsies to determine whether heat was the specific cause of death in most of the cases.

The problem is not simply that it is hot. The regions where the deaths have occurred are typically very warm during the summer. But officials said the length of the heat wave, with its unusually high temperatures, has created deadly conditions for those who are vulnerable or have no escape.

"We're used to heat, but we're not used to this much heat for this long," said Tina Starks, health education specialist in the Fresno County Community Health Department. "It's kind of a scary thing."

Fresno-area ambulances logged 349 calls Monday, breaking the county's daily record, largely because of heat-related illnesses. One of the region's trauma centers had to temporarily shut down because of surging demand.

"It's just too hot," said Daniel Lynch, director of emergency medical services for Fresno County. "It's really busy and it's really hot."

Among the dead were a farmworker who collapsed in the fields and a transient who passed out on the lawn in front of a Fresno home. The coroner believes heat was the main cause of death in at least 11 cases and a major factor in the others, as patients with asthma, heart trouble or other conditions weakened in the broiling conditions. Most of those who died were older than 70.

As of Tuesday, officials suspected that the heat caused 15 deaths in Stanislaus County and five in Sacramento County.

A few blocks from the state Capitol, three elderly residents in single-room-occupancy hotels were found dead Tuesday.

The names of the men were not released, but officials said the hotels did not have air conditioning. And after 10 days of 100-plus heat, the rooms where the men were found were very hot.

In the vast desert of Imperial County, which stretches east from the San Diego County border to Nevada, officials said Tuesday that six elderly people had died from heat exposure over the last two weeks.

Two of the victims were found in the trailers where they lived; neither had air conditioning, said Deputy Coroner Henry Proo. One trailer had a fan.

The other four victims, including a 95-year-old man identified as Warren Brock, were found outside.

"They become dehydrated," Proo said. "When you start talking about old people, their bodies can't function at the level they need to be. Four of them were outside when they shouldn't have been. Because of their age, their body quits on them."

Geraldine Robbins, 45, was driving from Slab City, a former military base where residents camp or live in trailers, to nearby Niland and ran out of gas Saturday afternoon.

She apparently got out of her car, then returned to it. Authorities found her inside with mud on her shoes.

In San Bernardino County, the coroner's office usually handles two or three heat-related deaths each year, said Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Sandy Fatland. But last weekend alone, she said, four deaths were attributed to heat.

"To have four on a two-day period, in one weekend, basically ... it stands out," Fatland said.

George A. Greenwood, 84, of Hinkley was discovered by his wife, Carrol, Saturday evening on their property. Greenwood was declared dead at Barstow Community Hospital.

Although Greenwood had heart trouble and wore a pacemaker, he didn't let his condition slow him down, Carrol Greenwood said.

"He continued to think he was as impervious to heat as he had been," she said. On Saturday, when her husband died, her thermometer read 121.2, she said.

"This is not a normal year," said Greenwood, 77. "We've been here almost 40 years. I've never seen it like this."

No heat-related deaths had been reported in Los Angeles and Orange counties as of Tuesday.

But Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County's public health director, said heat probably played a role in numerous cases over the past two weeks.

"People who have lung problems or heart problems or diabetes have much less reserve," Fielding said. "Heat could be the factor that just pitches them over the edge."

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