Heat wave hits Portland, and a laid-back city withers. Welcome to 'Hotlandia'

In a city known for its rainy season — a depressing stretch of moisture, gloom and short days that goes from roughly Halloween to the Fourth of July — Portlanders hold their summers sacred.

Summer in the City of Roses is ordinarily a relentless run of sunshine and robin’s-egg blue skies — a time so pleasant that Portlanders joke about an unwritten rule: Never tell outsiders about summer, or they might stampede here, and even stay.

But this week, as a punishing heat wave bears down on Portland and much of western Oregon, Portlanders have given their town such nicknames as “Hotlandia,” along with less polite sobriquets.

The nearly 640,000 residents of the city are suffering through a relative hell on Earth, with temperatures climbing into the 100s. Wednesday reached 103 in Portland, an all-time high for that date, and Thursday hit 106, another record, according to AccuWeather.

The good news is an earlier forecast predicted 109.

Summer temperatures tend to peak in the 70s, and the average temperature in Portland on Aug. 3 is 70.6. The all-time hottest temperature on record in the city, 107, has been recorded three times — the last in 1981.

The misery caused by Portland’s heat has been compounded by large wildfires in British Columbia, Canada, and another near Oregon’s Mt. Jefferson, which have blown a smoky haze into Portland, giving pockets of the city the look of a backyard barbecue gone bad.

Usually, on a clear day, you can look at hillsides and see green conifers that shimmer in the summer sun. Now, the smoke has given the trees a gray cast, a look usually associated here with fall. That is, if you can see the trees at all.

"You can't even see the mountains," said Lori Thompson, who was giving a tour to a group of more than a dozen middle school students visiting from Asago, Japan.

Thompson stood near a water fountain at the Portland waterfront, where little kids, and even a few teens, found relief from the heat. The Japanese students got into the water too.

“This was supposed to be a walking tour of Portland,” she said. “Now it's a fountain tour."

Running is wildly popular in the Portland area. Adidas North America is based on the north side of Portland and nearby Beaverton is home to Nike. By midmorning, when groups of runners would normally be huffing along, just an occasional runner could be spotted.

Still, Portlanders are trying to maintain a sense of humor, at least on Twitter. This week, one observer using the handle Les HailYes wryly tweeted about Portland’s counterculture reputation: “Its so hot in #Portland that the city is setting up beard cooling stations for the hipsters. #PortlandHeatWave.”

As if the heat and haze weren’t bad enough, 30% of households in the Portland area have no air-conditioning, according to statistics reported by one of the local newspapers, Willamette Week.

Portland-based Standard TV & Appliance would sell few, if any, air-conditioning units during a typical week in August, said Diane DeHaven, the company’s marketing manager. But late last week, when the string of 100-degree days was forecast, there was a run on air-conditioning units of every stripe. The shop sold about 100, DeHaven said.

“We’re used to mild weather, and people normally just suck it up,” she said. But when temperatures reach into triple digits, people go to pieces.

“We panic just like we panic when it starts to snow in Portland. Our air-conditioner sales are definitely driven by heat waves,” she said.

“We still have them in stock. Our supply is dwindling, but we still have more than the big-box stores. I know Best Buy, they’re out. Wal-Mart, they’re out.”

The extreme heat even affected the commuter rail system.

Portland’s metropolitan train lines have been forced to slow down, causing delays. “The heat can cause the copper in overhead wires to expand, and it can also cause the rails themselves to expand,” said Tommy Moore, a spokesman for the TriMet public transportation system. Trains that ordinarily outrun cars on the freeways have been forced to a relative crawl of 35 mph.

Moore, who moved to Portland from Colorado two weeks ago, was astonished by the hot weather. He seemed relieved to know this week was not normal.

“I’ve lived in hotter places,” he said, “but I’m a cool-weather person.”

Multnomah County has opened cooling stations, encouraging residents to drink lots of water and avoid alcohol, among other measures. But this is Portland, after all, home to some of the country’s finest craft beer, where the city’s leading beer retailer, John’s Marketplace, reported a weeklong run on kegs and cases.

“It really gets busy after 2 p.m.,” said Rick Erickson, a day manager at John’s, who said sales have probably jumped 50% during the heat wave. “The beer keeps selling,” he said between sales, at 9:05 a.m., “whether you’re rich or poor.”

While folks in Phoenix and Las Vegas might wonder why folks in Portland are raising such a fuss about a few hot days with low humidity, it’s a relative thing. Portland’s climate is more like London’s. The year-round average temperature runs about 54 degrees.

For Mohamed Jasin, who works at a downtown food cart called Mawj Iraqi Cuisini, his only relief from the heat Thursday was a little electric fan.

Jasin, a 55-year-old Iraqi who left Baghdad two years ago, wiped away sweat as he served customers.

"Today, it's very hot," he said.

But compared to Baghdad?

He smiled and looked away. "For us, this is OK. No problem."

Meanwhile, there’s no relief in sight, throughout western Oregon and up into Washington state. Portland’s Friday forecast is milder, but not by much: a high of 97.

Denson is a special correspondent.

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