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Danger in the forecast

Firefighters and lifeguards make preparations as rising temperatures and unusually high surf are predicted for the Fourth of July holiday period.

July 04, 2007|David Pierson and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

Temperatures hit triple digits across valley and desert regions of Southern California on Tuesday, as weather forecasters predicted the first heat wave of the summer could produce record-setting heat later this week.

The National Weather Service issued red flag fire alerts as well as an advisory for extreme heat for the second straight day, predicting that the heat wave could extend into the weekend.

Several weeks of triple-digit temperatures last summer killed more than 100 people around the state, most of them elderly residents of the Central Valley.

Hoping to prevent a repeat this year, officials are opening "cooling centers" and urging neighbors and family members to check on elderly people.

"Things are going to get pretty toasty," said Bonnie Bartling, a weather specialist for the National Weather Service.

Beach lifeguards were bracing for trouble as warm coastal waters combined with unusually high surf and dangerous rip currents. The beaches were packed last weekend, and officials worry that crowds will only grow in the next few days.

Laguna Beach lifeguards expect about 60,000 people today, with 75 lifeguards patrolling over the 18-hour holiday period.

"Our fear," said Mark Klosterman, the city's chief of marine safety, "is the public is going to overwhelm the number of rescuers."

At Huntington City Beach, where up to 130,000 people are expected to cram onto 3.5 miles of sand today, lifeguards have been gearing up for huge crowds and high surf, said marine safety Lt. Mike Beuerlein.

"Everyone's been calling it that, 'the perfect storm,' " he said, "though I don't like that because there's nothing perfect about it. These are really hazardous conditions."

Newport Beach is extending patrol unit hours and the amount of time towers are manned; it's also bumping up the number of lifeguards from 65 to about 90, said Rob Williams, lifeguard battalion chief.

The city is expecting about 100,000 beachgoers, since "we're one of the last free forms of entertainment," Williams said.

The hottest temperatures are forecast for the Antelope Valley, where the mercury is expected to soar as high as 112 today and 114 Thursday. The hottest July 4 on record in Lancaster was 109, set in 1991, the same year Palmdale hit 110.

Temperatures could decline by two to five degrees by the weekend.

"It will be cooler, relatively speaking," Bartling said.

Even if there were no heat wave, Southern California fire officials would be on full alert. They say the combination of moisture-starved brush and excessive heat colliding with a holiday typically marked by fireworks could prove combustible. The region has already marked its driest rain season on record.

"It's no different than what we've worried about for months," said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Stephen Miller. But with the holiday, he added, there are "thousands of ignition sources."

In recent weeks, firefighters have doused several small vegetation fires that fireworks sparked.

"You'll hear firefighters talk about everything being in alignment for a big one," he said. "That's where we are right now, with explosive conditions."

Electricity providers were also on edge. A plane crashed into electrical wires in San Diego County on Tuesday, killing two people and adding to a loss of power-generating capacity that prompted operators of the state's power grid to call for statewide conservation. In Los Angeles, the Department of Water and Power generated 5,300 megawatts of power to its customers, a record for the year.

The San Diego County Water Authority issued a plea late Tuesday for the county's 3 million residents to reduce water usage during daylight hours or risk mandatory cutbacks. The region's treatment plants are running at maximum capacity as the soaring heat drives up water usage.

Across the Southland, people are learning to cope with the sizzling temperatures.

In Riverside, 100-degree temperatures Tuesday afternoon didn't stop Alan Gray, 50, of Nuevo from parking his truck at Mt. Rubidoux Park and walking along the Santa Ana River Trail for 90 minutes. He wore a baseball cap and sunglasses and carried a bottle of water.

"I work outdoors so I know to hydrate and take it easy," said Gray, who trains Arabian horses. "I find a little shade and take a break when I get tired."

Water deliveryman Chris Thorne, 43, said he sips ice-cold bottles of water along his routes during the summer. Unlimited access to refreshing water is one of the perks of the job.

"I freeze my bottles the night before and they thaw out through the day," he said. "It's tough, but I've been doing this for 23 years. I wear a hat and move slowly. You can't rush."

At Riverside's Cesar Chavez Community Center in the Bobby Bonds Sports Complex, youth swimming lessons continued in the afternoon despite the heat.

"Well, if there's a place to beat the heat, I guess it would be with the help of a lot of water," said Frankie Villalobos, 35, as he watched his daughter Meghan in the pool.

Some were not deterred by the temperature.

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