The cool ocean breezes and clouds that meteorologists call Southern California's natural air conditioner broke down this year, creating record heat that is expected to continue through October.
First, May gray -- the marine layer that usually blankets parts of the Southland at the end of spring -- pulled a vanishing act. Then, June gloom failed to materialize with any regularity most everywhere but on the coast.
As a result, the Los Angeles region endured a blistering June -- the second-hottest on record after 1981 -- and the rest of the summer looks to be a scorcher, including this weekend.
"The bottom line is that we skipped spring," said William Patzert, a meteorologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge. "And July is headed for a record-breaker too if something doesn't change in the second half of the month."
Southern California relies on the sea breezes and cloud cover from the ocean to cool the climate during the late spring and early summer.
But this year, hot air from northern Mexico's deserts and moisture from the Gulf of California have moved in, keeping out the cool air and heating things up. The hot spring and summer are a continuation of about eight years of warming conditions in the west, Patzert said, adding that the last time the Southland saw such a sustained heat trend was in the 1950s and '60s.
The massive fire that burned through parts of San Bernardino County this week was sparked by the kind of summer lightning these weather conditions produce, Patzert said.
The conditions represent bad news for fire crews as moisture levels in the brush and chaparral decline by the hour.
More than 2,000 firefighters have spent the week battling the 59,000-acre brush fire north of Yucca Valley that showed signs of slowing down only Friday. Although the Sawtooth fire did merge with a smaller blaze, officials expressed optimism that the flames were moving away from populated mountain communities and into remote desert regions.
The heat isn't much better for city dwellers, who are finding dining alfresco and even walking the dog at night to be uncomfortable.
Jamie Johnson, a 21-year-old student at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, said the hot weather added challenges in the kitchen. "It's hard to work with chocolate or meringue when it's this hot," she said, referring to a restaurant where she works. "Even our caramel has been melting."
Pasadena resident Dakota Dunbar said another weekend of triple-digit temperatures would mean abandoning the San Gabriel Valley for the beaches of the South Bay for surfing.
"No wetsuits needed," he said.
But the sustained heat has been a much more serious matter to the elderly and the frail.
The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services this week issued an extreme heat advisory, urging residents -- particularly those in inland valleys -- to use caution when outdoors.
The temperatures tell the story. The average temperature in downtown Los Angeles in June was 74.5 degrees, four degrees above average. According to records that go back to 1878, there was only one year that saw a higher average: 1981, with 77.4 degrees.
So far this month, the average 24-hour temperature has been 79.1 -- 5.6 degrees above average.
Patzert said Southern California has been meteorologically out of whack for a while. The winter rains came late, in March and April. Then spring took a vacation, as sweltering summer came early.
"It's just ... hot," Patzert exclaimed as he prepared to go surfing in Encinitas.
Patzert said he was disappointed that June gloom did not really appear, not the least because it has been "too freaking hot here in Sierra Madre."
"I always love June gloom. I call it nature's air conditioner for Southern California," Patzert said. "The guys who rent boogie boards will hate me for saying this, but if it was up to me, I would like to have June gloom from May to September."
Patzert said a drought going into its eighth year in the southwestern United States bears much of the blame for this year's heat here.
A persistent high pressure system that has been keeping that region even drier than usual has also been pumping subtropical moisture from the Gulf of California and heat from the Mexican desert into Southern California.
Overall, 2006 has been abnormally warm for the United States. The average temperature for the continental U.S. in the first half of the year was the warmest of any year going back to 1895, according to a report released Friday by the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.
Temperatures are expected to hit 96 degrees in downtown L.A. today and 103 in Pasadena and other parts of the San Gabriel Valley. But that's relatively cool compared with the 110 and 109 degrees that Woodland Hills and Lancaster, respectively, are expected to experience.
The conditions have firefighters on edge.
Fire departments throughout Los Angeles County said extra helicopters were on standby in case wildfires broke out. So far, Los Angeles and Orange counties have experienced only small blazes, though the true brush fire season comes with dry Santa Ana winds in late September and October.
People are dealing with the heat any way they can.
Dusty Earl, 21, of Mount Washington takes frozen water bottles wherever he goes. When the mercury rises, Todd Hunt, 33, of Altadena avoids cooking at home and begins to long for his air-conditioned job at the Pasadena Crate & Barrel.
"When I know it's going to be over 100 degrees," he said, "I don't mind working."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Today's forecast calls for triple-digit temperatures
for many local areas.
Question: Is it just me, or has it been hotter than normal recently?
Answer: Meteorologists said the last few months have been unusually warm. This was the second hottest June ever recorded for downtown Los Angeles. So far, July is running almost six degrees above average.
Q: What's going on?
A: Southern California usually gets sea breezes and cloud cover from the ocean that cools the climate in the late spring and early summer. This year, however, hotter air from northern Mexico's deserts and moisture from the Gulf of California moved in, keeping out the cool air.
Q: How is this affecting the wildfires?
A: Sustained hot and dry weather reduces the moisture level of shrubs and grasses that are fuel for brush fires.
Q: How should I protect myself during the extreme heat?
A: County health officials offer this advice: Wear light, loose-fitting clothing; drink water often; hang out in air-conditioned areas during extremely hot weather; and avoid unnecessary outdoor exertion. When in the sun, wear a hat, preferably with a wide brim. If you know senior citizens or people whose immune or respiratory systems are compromised or who live alone, check on them regularly to make sure they are staying cool.
Q: How can I tell if I am getting dehydrated?
A: According to the county, symptoms of heat-related illness include dizziness, fatigue, faintness, headaches, muscle cramps and increased thirst.
Sources: Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, Times reports
How to cope
Extreme heat can cause serious illness, even death, and is particularly dangerous to the elderly and young children. Here are some tips for dealing with the heat:
* Drink plenty of water but avoid caffeine and alcohol, which cause fluid loss.
* Drink fruit juice or sports drinks to replace salt and minerals lost through sweat.
* Take advantage of shade and air conditioning. If you don't have an air conditioner, go to a shopping mall or public library.
* Children, the elderly and pets should never be left in an enclosed vehicle, even briefly. The temperature can quickly rise to life-threatening levels even with the windows partially open.
Sources: National Weather Service, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, Times reports