It Was Hot Enough to Melt a Record

Times Staff Writers

The San Fernando Valley turned into a suburban Death Valley on Saturday as the mercury hit a record 119 in Woodland Hills, causing sweaty refugees to hug iced lattes, plop down on tile floors and, in at least one case, plead with a salesman to part with his last remaining portable air conditioner, a floor model.

“Today I realized I can’t function with just a fan,” said Susan Mitnik, who lives in a Topanga Canyon cottage. “It feels like everything is radiating heat. My head begins to pound.”

Woodland Hills is a heat-hardy community, typically among the hottest locations in Los Angeles County. But the over-the-top temperature on this day sucked the life from normal Saturday activities -- traffic was light, sidewalks were virtually empty -- and the brave few who ventured out seemed to move in slow-motion, as if underwater.

Among the unfortunate who lacked air conditioning at home, many took advantage of climate-controlled restaurants, malls and movie theaters. Then there was Mitnik, who begged for the portable air conditioner -- a $399.99 floor sample -- at the Woodland Hills Best Buy.

Alas, the salesman would not relent.

How hot was it? According to the National Weather Service, it was the hottest day in Woodland Hills since record-keeping began in 1949 -- 3 degrees above the former record, set in August 1985.


It was hotter in Woodland Hills than previously recorded in Los Angeles County for a July 22 and 5 degrees hotter than ever recorded in the desert city of Lancaster.

Elsewhere in the region, it wasn’t exactly a day for a picnic. El Cajon and Escondido smashed through their previous mutual records of 109, the former hitting 113 and the latter 112. The San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park hit 114, 2 degrees higher than its previous all time-record.

In other scattered locations, records were broken for the date: Burbank hit 112, 12 degrees above the previous record set July 22, 1980, and only 1 degree below the all-time high of 113, the National Weather Service said. Laguna Beach hit 94, and in downtown Los Angeles, the mercury climbed to 101.

“It’s hotter here than in the Philippines,” declared Lota Figueroa, a matron of honor, as she departed a downtown wedding chapel, referring to her native home.

She fretted over her makeup and hair. “It’s not going to stay. It’s going to melt.”

Just after noon, Ins Lee, a 58-year-old shopkeeper, abandoned a trip to the post office, trying to hide in the shade of a traffic signal.

“I couldn’t even walk one block down. It’s so hot,” Lee said. “I wish I could go home and turn on the air conditioning and make a cold noodle soup.”

At the downtown Grand Central Market, the muggy embrace of humid air was inescapable, as beads of sweat trickled down T-shirts and workers splashed water on their hair and necks. Fans merely spread hot air around the shops.

The heat is the result of an unusually strong high-pressure system centered over the western United States, which is affecting the entire West, according to the National Weather Service. And although Southern California is normally cooled by winds from the Pacific, the region is instead being heated by winds from the Arizona desert and Mexico.

Partial relief could be coming today, as the high-pressure system is expected relax and move east, according to the weather service.

The forecast calls for highs from the 70s at the beaches, the lower 90s inland and more than 100 in the valleys, with a 20% chance of showers and thunderstorms in the evening.

Energy officials, struggling to keep up with soaring demand for electrical power, pleaded Saturday for conservation.

Early in the afternoon, operators of the state electricity grid called a Stage 1 power emergency after a major power plant in Northern California failed and demand soared as people cranked up air conditioners.

“We absolutely need Californians to conserve and cut back on energy use now ... to help us manage this very serious condition,” said Jim Detmers, an official with the California Independent System Operator, which manages the power transmission system for 75% of the state.

To conserve power for homes, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed the Department of Water Resources to curtail pumping at the State Water Project, which delivers water from Northern California to much of the Southland, until after 8 p.m.

And electronic signs on California freeways that usually carry traffic information beamed a different message Saturday: “Conserve Energy.”

By midday, energy use had far exceeded the previous record for a Saturday, set only a week ago, both Southern California Edison and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power said. Power demand on the state system peaked shortly after 3 p.m. at 48,490 megawatts, not far short of the record set Friday, 49,036 megawatts.

Gregg Fishman, spokesman for Cal-ISO, said demand started rising steeply after sunrise because warm overnight temperatures kept buildings from cooling.

“It is pretty incredible,” Fishman said.

He called on Californians to turn off all unnecessary lights and appliances and to set air conditioners at 78 degrees or above.

Multiple power outages were reported throughout the area. A spokeswoman for Southern California Edison said the utility was planning to remotely shut down air conditioning to residential customers who have volunteered for the conservation program.

Shortly after 5 p.m. in Santa Monica, where the temperature reached the mid-80s, two underground electrical vaults exploded along the 200 and 300 blocks of Santa Monica Boulevard, knocking out power to parts of the Third Street Promenade and surrounding buildings, said Fire Department Capt. Scott Ziegert.

Firefighters secured the area around the smoking electrical equipment and rescued about 40 people trapped in elevators. No injuries were reported, and Southern California Edison crews were working Saturday night to repair damage and restore power. They expected the work to take 24 hours.

Other communities close to the seashore also felt the heat -- the mercury hit 97 in Long Beach -- but that didn’t discourage beachgoers. In Orange County, temperatures reached 99 at John Wayne Airport, 106 at the Fullerton Airport and a relatively comfortable 81 degrees at Newport Beach.

In Huntington Beach, Orange County’s most popular stretch of sand, lifeguards reported 60,000 visitors on the 3 1/2 miles of beach, an increase over the crowds of 40,000 to 50,000 on a typical summer weekend day.

For the land-locked in Woodland Hills, the mall was the next best thing to ocean spray.

The “play town” children’s area at the Woodland Hills Westfield Promenade was jammed with at least two dozen youngsters.

Donna Azulay, 26, of West Hills sought refuge there with her husband, Ron, 28, and 1-year-old daughter, Jordyn, after the power went out at their West Hills home just before 5 p.m.

“The air just stopped. Everything just stopped working,” Donna Azulay said.

Asked whether they had ever felt heat like this before, Donna, a Southern California native, responded without equivocation: “Never ever ever ever ever. I’m just scared it’s going to get hotter in the next couple of years.”

When the air conditioning at a local movie theater faltered, several people left. They thirsted for relief more than for entertainment. Fortunately, the theater had a tile floor. So they sat down and stretched out their bare legs.

“I just want to go home and sit by my fan,” said Chelsea Kennedy, 15, of Newbury Park. “I never remember it being this hot.”

Times staff writers Cara Mia DiMassa, Christopher Goffard, Rong-Gong Lin and Jean Merl contributed to this report.