Weather Blamed in Deaths in Region

Times Staff Writer

At least four deaths in the Southland over the weekend were attributed to the record-breaking, triple-digit heat wave gripping the state, while more than two dozen other people may have died from the heat in the Central Valley, authorities said.

Still, officials in Los Angeles and neighboring counties said Monday that there are relatively few deaths each year caused by high temperatures, unlike in other parts of the country. That's due to a combination of factors, not the least of which is that Southern Californians have more experience living with searing temperatures.

"Let's remember we are in an area that people are used to relatively hot weather," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, public health director for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. "More people use air conditioning and know how to keep cool."

"It's acclimation and information," added John Van Rensselaer, supervising deputy coroner for Kern County, which last year saw only five heat-related deaths and is still determining how many people have succumbed to heat this year.

Authorities in the Central Valley are also looking into more than two dozen possible heat-related deaths there. Temperatures in that region jumped to 115 degrees this weekend.

More than 16 million people live in the five-county area of Southern California -- Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties -- which has withered for weeks under sweltering temperatures combined with oppressive humidity.

According to the San Bernardino County coroner's office, heat was blamed in the deaths this weekend of George Greenwood, 84, of Hinkley; Ricka McGuire, 65, of Wonder Valley; Darin Wynn, 44, of Ontario; and an unidentified woman who died at Chino Hills Hospital.

Officials with coroner's offices from Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties reported no heat-related deaths over the weekend, the height of the current heat wave.

The Riverside County coroner's office was unable to confirm whether it had any deaths due to the extreme conditions.

In July 1995, Chicago reported more than 700 heat-related deaths in a summer of record-breaking heat -- primarily among its elderly population.

Nearly 15,000 died in France in the summer of 2003, with a total of 19,000 dying that year throughout Europe because of the blistering heat. Critics blamed that summer's high death toll on everything from government inaction to staffing shortages at hospitals and retirement homes.

Fielding said Los Angeles County officials don't have the same problem because of well-equipped healthcare systems and aggressive community outreach efforts, including weather advisories that urge residents to wear proper clothing, drink liquids and check on elderly neighbors.

Southern Californians can also escape the blazing heat of the interior valleys and desert by heading for the more moderate beaches and mountains.

Fielding noted, however, that just because a person dies of heart or lung disease, it doesn't mean that weather might not have been a contributing factor.

"It's not something that's usually on a death certificate," Fielding said.

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