Historic Heat Pushes California to the Brink

A worker with the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission’s mobile outreach unit handed out water in Indio on Tuesday.Credit…Rachel Bujalski for The New York Times

On Tuesday, the heat dome punishing the West continued its suffocating stay over California, sending temperatures to all-time highs, making it harder to fight the wildfires now burning in various parts of the state and contributing to any post-holiday malaise residents may have been experiencing.

But the state avoided widespread blackouts.

Despite breaking a 16-year-old record for electricity use, California averted a statewide order for utilities to turn off the lights after increasingly dire warnings from state leaders. At one point Tuesday, the state sent emergency phone alerts imploring residents to shut off unnecessary power — or risk imminent outages.

As Lupe Mani succinctly put it: “We’re suffering with this heat wave.”

I met Mani, 24, at the beach in Santa Monica on Tuesday afternoon. She’d driven an hour and a half with two of her girlfriends and one of their children from Menifee, not far from where the deadly Fairview fire was chewing through thousands of acres, prompting evacuation orders and school closures.

Evening outages occurred in three Bay Area cities — Healdsburg, Palo Alto and Petaluma — according to their social media accounts. And PG&E said it shut off power to 12,000 residents in Davis to avoid a heat-related equipment failure. But energy grid officials said after sunset that Californians’ quick conservation scramble made a difference in avoiding state-ordered rolling blackouts.

If this weeklong ordeal has left you feeling worn down and anxious about life in the future in our rapidly warming region, you’re not alone — nor are you unjustified, according to experts.

This extreme heat has been “extraordinary in almost every dimension except humidity,” Daniel L. Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, told my colleague.

The scorching heat itself is dangerous, of course. But what has made this heat wave stand out is its “mind-blowing” duration, he said.

“Sacramento has rarely seen temperatures of 110 degrees plus for three, four days on end,” Swain said. (Sacramentans endured heat that reached a record-breaking high of 116 degrees on Tuesday — so hot that even Phoenix hasn’t reached that mark this year.)

As is the case for many of California’s biggest climate challenges — think of wildfires and the drought — extreme heat is likely to become a permanent fixture of life, and communities are scrambling to adapt.

In Los Angeles, Marta Segura’s new job is to help sound the alarm about extreme heat as the city’s new chief heat officer. It’s an expansion of her role running Los Angeles’s Climate Emergency Mobilization Office, but Segura said the new title was meant to be a bit more specific.

“Extreme heat is Los Angeles’s primary climate hazard,” she told me. “We want the public to understand that it is the primary climate hazard, and we want the state and federal government to get that message.”

Segura cited a federal risk index that showed Los Angeles County had the highest vulnerability to natural hazards of any county in the nation.

That’s largely because of the way that heat compounds other types of dangers. It exacerbates health conditions and makes communities that are already vulnerable more so because the heat causes air pollution to stagnate.

Increasingly, scientists and policymakers are pushing to treat extreme heat events more like other disasters. Right now, they say, death and sickness that is caused by extreme heat is vastly underestimated.

Last year, Dr. David Eisenman, the director of the University of California, Los Angeles’s Center for Public Health and Disasters, told me that the state was one of relatively few to implement worker-safety regulations regarding heat. Gov. Gavin Newsom has a bill on his desk that would start a framework for the state to rank heat waves. And air-conditioner technology is getting better, which means that cheaper, more energy-efficient units are more widely accessible than in years past.

Still, Eisenman said, there’s a lot left that must be done. The results could save countless lives.

The Quang Chau Industrial Park, which includes Foxconn factories, in Bac Giang Province, Vietnam. Credit…Linh Pham for The New York Times

If you read one story, make it this

Tech companies are slowly shifting their production away from China.

A firefighter battling the Fairview fire Monday near Hemet.Credit…Ethan Swope/Associated Press

The rest of the news

  • Wildfires: Firefighters across California endured a scorching day battling blazes that ripped through tinder-dry brush and grass, including one fire that killed two people on Monday as it roared through a canyon.

  • Blackouts: As the heat dome over the West persisted, the manager of California’s electric grid urged consumers to reduce their usage to avoid rolling blackouts. Those warnings are expected to continue this week.

  • Remedial classes: Awaiting Newsom’s signature is a bill that would mostly ban remedial math and English classes, which would affect more than 40 colleges that offer those classes, The LAist reports.


  • Cyberattack: Los Angeles school officials scrambled to open classrooms on Tuesday amid a cyberattack on the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Controller: The former Los Angeles city controller Laura Chick waded into the Nov. 8 race for her old job, issuing an open letter that accused one candidate, Kenneth Mejia, of being an extremist, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Fraud scheme: A former stockbroker from Chino Hills was sentenced to six and a half years in prison after pleading guilty to running a securities fraud scheme that targeted low-income Latinos, The Los Angeles Times reports.


  • Heat wave: A school in Fresno Unified sent students home early because of the dangerous combination of the current heat wave and air-conditioning failures, The Fresno Bee reports.


  • Teacher housing: The Milpitas Unified School District is asking families to rent out rooms in their homes to teachers who have been priced out by soaring Silicon Valley rents, The Mercury News reports.

  • Covid rebound: While some areas in San Francisco like the Financial District are still struggling to attain their former economic vitality, the Haight-Ashbury is bouncing back, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.

What we’re eating

Roasted broccoli grain bowl.

Tell us

Californians: Have growing concerns about climate change affected how you live your life? Have you made any changes? If so, we want to hear about them. (Are you driving less, eating differently or changing your job?)

Email us at [email protected]. Please include your name and the city you live in.

This is part of a live event that The Times is hosting in San Francisco on Oct. 12 examining our collective response to the climate challenge. Learn more.

Credit…Mohamed Messara/EPA, via Shutterstock

And before you go, some good news

Anna Cho was working as a video game artist, stretched thin and on the job 12 hours a day, when her mother was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in 2013. Her mother died soon after.

Cho, living in Los Angeles, remembers feeling disconnected from everything. She was burned out at work. She felt unsure of her place in the world.

She started taking pottery classes in West Los Angeles to improve her mental health. And, in the process, she found that working with clay soothed her.

“It was mind-blowing,” Cho told The Los Angeles Times. “I thought that perhaps I’d find a new hobby and like-minded community, but it was more than that. There were a lot of older women at the studio and I loved that. After losing my own mother, it was so nice to be around them.”

That’s how Cho began a new career in pottery and woodworking. Read the full story from the Los Angeles Times.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Soumya Karlamangla, Maia Coleman, Isabella Grullón Paz and Briana Scalia contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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