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Summer Was the Winter of Considerable Discontent

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Traditionally, Labor Day feels like a farewell to summer, but this year Orange County residents may have the odd sensation that they are saying goodby to a season that never bothered to show up.

The long, hot days of summer for which Southern California is famous were few and far between the past two months. Overcast skies, humidity and even rain have been the way of the summer, much to the chagrin of sunbathers, beach businesses and tourist types.

Since July 4, there have been more than 40 days when the inland temperature didn’t break 80 degrees, and a freakish July rain shower sent weather watchers scrambling for the record books, searching for precedents.

“It’s been so lame all summer,” said Fullerton resident Charles Walker, 23. “Everyday has been cloudy and muggy. Sometimes, I would get halfway to the beach, look up and say, ‘forget it,’ and just turn around.

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“This summer stinks. It stinks bad, " he concluded.

Not everyone feels quite like Walker. Many residents took pleasure in the rather mild weather, glad to be spared temperatures in the 90s and 100s and the cost of running their air conditioners. And the cooler weather had several benefits, helping account for unusually clean air, fewer brush fires and less water consumption in a time of severe drought.

A scan of weather statistics shows that summer daily temperatures were only about 3 to 4 degrees cooler than a year before, but that average was boosted by warming trends over the past couple of weeks. In July, for instance, Santa Ana temperatures were down a significant 7 1/2 degrees from 1990, while Newport Beach thermometers sunk 5 1/2 and failed to top 69 degrees the entire month.

Marty McKewon, a senior meteorologist with WeatherData Inc., a company that provides weather information to The Times, said a stubborn trough of low-pressure air accounted for the unusual summer. The trough promotes damp days with fog and rolling, low clouds that shield the sun. The result, as most folks would put it, is an overcast day. Or, as tourist-driven industries and beachside merchants might express it, bad business.

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“It’s been a real weird summer, and it hasn’t been a very kind one to us,” Jeanette Clapp said. Clapp, owner of Dwight’s Beach Concession near the Huntington Beach Pier, said her business has been halved by the one-two punch of bad weather and a sluggish economy. “I’ve been working here since 1941, and I’ve seen it slow down in August because of school, but not like this. I’ve never seen it this slow for this long,” she added.

Lt. Steve Davidson, a Huntington Beach lifeguard for 24 years, said he will always remember the summer of 1991, adding: “It’ll stick in my head in a bad sort of way because it has just been such gloomy weather.”

Davidson said only one summer, back in the early ‘70s, was as dreary. Naturally, he said, the weather has meant fewer beach-goers, which in turn meant a drop in parking revenues and a number of days when lifeguard staffers were sent home early.

“But it should get nicer out,” he added. “September and October are always pretty nice, and the crowds aren’t as bad.”

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Firefighters are among those who have seen a silver lining behind the clouds. Coming into the summer, officials warned that the area’s 5-year-old drought would make brush blazes a danger, but the gray days dampened the threat.

“It’s been just wonderful, just excellent from a firefighter’s standpoint,” said Capt. Dan Young, spokesman for the Orange County Fire Department. “When an average person wakes up and sees overcast skies outside, they think, ‘Oh no, another dreary day.’ But for us, we think it’s another day we can count on being home that evening on time instead of spending a few days on a fire line.”

Young said the high humidity has spared plant life from drying out excessively, while low winds have kept the fires that do spring up from spreading quickly. The result has been less than a dozen fires countywide, with none over more than five acres. Young said that’s “peaceful” compared to last year’s “nightmare fire season,” when 240 fires destroyed more than 15,500 acres.

But all that can change quickly, Young cautions. He said a visit from the other side of summer--low humidity, a significant high-pressure system or Santa Ana winds--could kick fire conditions up to a danger level in less than a day.

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And the weather did give a boost to water conservation.

Some water was saved because of a drop in tourism, which is due in part to cloudy days and, more significantly, the sluggish national economy. But the real conservation came in the form of cutbacks in landscape irrigation, according to Orange County Water District spokesman Jim Van Haun.

“About half of the water used in this county is used outdoors, and because of the weather, people are using water outside a lot less because their grass and plants aren’t as dried out,” Van Haun said. He added that there was an 18% drop in usage among the district’s 2 million users between Feb. 1 and Aug. 1, about half of which he attributes to the weather.

And Joe Cassmassi, senior meteorologist for the Air Quality Management District, said the same weather system that caused the persistent cloud cover during the summer also generated wind conditions that dispersed smog, making this summer one of the cleanest ever. So far this year, there have been 28 Stage 1 smog alerts, compared to 33 this time last year.

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“It’s been a great summer for us,” Cassmassi said. “It’s been a clean year by any standard--the cleanest since we began recording air quality in the 1950s.”

Bummer Summer

It was chilly, it was cloudy, it even rained. Not until mid-August did summer seem to arrive in Orange County. While gloomy weather kept the beaches empty, it helped conserve water and power and prevented wildfires.

Clouds: Meteorologists say weather conditions made the cloud layer and foggy conditions more difficult to burn off, leaving gray skies almost daily over much of the county.

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Rain: Given July’s reputation for parched conditions, the rain that fell on the Southland three days that month had meteorologists scratching their heads.

Water: Reservoirs certainly weren’t affected by the piddling precipitation, but cooler temperatures did mean a dip in landscape water usage.

Fires: Humidity and low winds meant the area’s brush fires were strictly bush league. Orange County Fire Department statistics show there were only about a dozen blazes, and none burned more than 5 acres.

Smog: The weather pattern that kept clouds and fog hanging in the Southland’s skies and swept away the smog.

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Beaches: The surfing was mediocre, and only the hardiest of sunbathers made it to Orange County beaches on a regular basis. Clouds and some fog blocked out the rays, causing a dip in beach attendance and parking revenue.

A Cooler, Gentler Summer

Last year was a “normal” summer in Santa Ana, slightly cooler in Newport Beach, on average. But this year’s inland and beach temperatures plunged well below those norms.

Newport Beach 1990 average temperature: 71.2; historical average: 72.5

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Santa Ana 1990 average summer temperature: 83.4; historical average: 83.5.

Sources: WeatherData, Southern California Edison, lifeguard agencies, Orange County Fire Department.


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