FRESNO, Calif. – The state appeared to break out of its nearly two-week heat wave Friday, but not before it caused as many as 139 deaths and did untold damage to crops.
Authorities raised their toll of possibly heat-related deaths by more than 30 on Friday. The big increase came primarily from Los Angeles County and the Central Valley counties of Merced and Stanislaus, where coroners struggled to keep up.
Stanislaus County, which includes Modesto, has reported 29 heat-related deaths. It normally sees just one such death a year, county emergency services spokesman David Jones said.
California had been sizzling in triple-digit temperatures since July 16. Several cities set records for extended heat waves, including Fresno, with six consecutive 110-plus-degree days, and Sacramento, with 11 consecutive triple-digit days, said Cynthia Palmer, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Sacramento.
Only Friday did officials say the heat wave appeared to be over, with temperatures expected to return to normal over the weekend.
"You have to go back quite a ways before you see this kind of heat over this widespread an area lasting this long," said David Reynolds, the weather service's chief meteorologist in Monterey. "This kind of heat wave is relatively rare and may only occur every 20 to 25 years."
Fresno children and their parents filled the playground and soccer fields at Radio Park, relieved they could finally venture outside without broiling.
"It feels nice to be outside for more than a minute. For the past week it's just been from the house to the car, from the car to the house," said Eric Mayberry, who took his 3-year-old daughter to the playground.
The vast majority of deaths attributed to the heat were of elderly people who died in homes without air conditioning in the Central Valley, where temperatures hit 115 degrees for several consecutive days.
Many elderly residents, whose bodies don't cope as well in the heat, probably underestimated the potential for harm, county coroners said.
"They've dealt with heat forever," said Sgt. Sue Norris, supervisor of the Merced County coroner's office. "They don't think that it could be a real danger."
Central Valley farmers were assessing damage to their crops. Growers of peaches, plums, nectarines and walnuts were especially hurt, said Rosanna Westmoreland, a spokeswoman for the California Farm Bureau.
"This is definitely going to be one of those years we're going to remember," said Paul Wenger, a Stanislaus County farmer who said thousands of his walnut and almond trees suffered sun damage and even died in the heat.
July has seen extreme heat across the country, including in St. Louis, which sweltered all the worse after storms caused the worst blackout in city history last week. AmerenUE Corp. brought in utility workers from around the country to help, but power was not completely restored until Friday, nine days later.
More than a million customers lost power in California's heat wave, largely because of equipment failures, but power regulators avoided the mandatory blackouts that marked the state's power crisis of 2000 and 2001. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. said it would offer payments between $25 and $100 to customers who went without power for more than two days.
Some energy experts said the heat wave exposed weaknesses in California's energy infrastructure. They added that although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state power regulators have emphasized power plant construction, they have done little to effectively manage how much electricity Californians use during heat waves and power shortages.
"California has really dropped the ball," said Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute. "Schwarzenegger is just as guilty as the Legislature and the previous governor."
Anger over the state's power problems played a large role when Schwarzenegger ousted Gov. Gray Davis in a 2003 recall election.
Officials with California's Independent System Operator — the regulator of much of the state's energy supply — said their strategy of emergency declarations warning people to conserve worked. But Michael Gordon, president of ConsumerPowerline, a leading energy asset manager firm with California clients, said it may not work next time.
Gordon said the state may have leaned too heavily on companies that receive discounts for curbing their power use at high-demand times. That program has become less appealing since participating companies were asked seven days out of nine to use less power, he said.