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UC Davis cuts commencement ceremony short — 7 people hospitalized amid excessive heat

UC Davis' Health Stadium
A file photo of UC Davis’ Health Stadium, where Friday’s commencement ceremony was ended early because of excessive heat.
(Google Maps)

Amid a heat wave gripping huge swaths of California, UC Davis stopped its commencement ceremony Friday after people started falling ill, officials said.

There were 36 heat-related medical calls and seven people were hospitalized, Julia Ann Easley, a university spokesperson, told The Times. She did not know the conditions of those hospitalized.

Most of the medical calls were for heat-related illness but also included a two-vehicle crash, a fall and a person with a rolled ankle, Easley said.

UC Davis Fire Department requested ambulances for 14 of the 36 calls, she said. Firefighters took seven people to area hospitals.

The rest of the patients were either treated at the scene or didn’t require treatment.

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Commencement started shortly after 8 a.m. at UC Davis Health Stadium “to benefit from the cool of the morning,” Easley said. The stadium is outdoors and not enclosed.

A livestream of the proceedings was offered at University Credit Union Center, the campus’ basketball arena, for anyone who didn’t have tickets or preferred to stay indoors, she said.

Forecasters with the National Weather Service’s Sacramento office had warned that Friday would see dangerously high temperatures.

“Hot temperatures are going to continue for today and we will see high heat risk across much of the area,” a tweet posted by the weather service Friday morning stated. “Be sure to practice heat safety to avoid heat-related illnesses.”

The agency operates a weather gauge next to UC Davis, said Hannah Chandler-Cooley, a meteorologist with the Sacramento office. It registered about 80 degrees at 8 a.m.

Temperatures climbed swiftly. It was 84 degrees by 9 a.m., 88 degrees by 10 a.m. and 90 degrees an hour later, Chandler-Cooley said.

University officials had stadium concessions open and food trucks on site, Easley said. A water station was also available. And a team monitored conditions.

About two hours after the ceremony began, university officials published a tweet warning about the conditions.

“To grads/families on the field RIGHT NOW — it is extremely hot,” the post stated. “If you have crossed the stage, you DO NOT need to stay to the end. Feel free to leave and head to Hutchison Field where there is COLD water and air conditioning at the U Center. We’re working on a stadium announcement.”

Officials ended the ceremony at 11:20 a.m., Easley said.

By noon, the temperature had reached 91 degrees and continued to climb, Chandler-Cooley said.

Read all of our coverage about how California is neglecting the climate threat posed by extreme heat.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration heat risk map placed most of California, with the exception of the High Sierra, under some danger of heat impact.

Coastal areas and California’s far northern counties were shaded yellow — low risk. Inland areas still relatively close to the coast, including Los Angeles County, were shaded orange, moderate risk.

Most of the Central Valley, however, was shaded in red: “High Risk for much of the population, especially those who are heat sensitive and those without effective cooling and/or adequate hydration,” according to NOAA.

Isolated pockets of the state were shaded in purple, very high risk.

The city of Davis, on Friday, was shaded in red.

University officials released a brief statement around 1 p.m.

“Based on health and public safety concerns due to heat and at the urging of the UC Davis Fire Department, Fire Prevention Services, and Environmental Health and Safety, we had to end today’s commencement ceremony early,” officials said, adding that they “deeply regret” that some students couldn’t walk across the stage.

Students and their family members took to Twitter during and after the event to voice frustrations about how they perceived university officials handled conditions.

Some criticized the university for allegedly banning outside drinks and running out of water supplies for the commencement.

One Twitter user posted a video of a lengthy water line.

Several current and former Associated Students of UC Davis members sent a letter to Chancellor Gary May, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Mary Croughan and other campus administrators after the commencement ceremony.

A copy of the letter was provided to The Times on Friday evening.

The student government representatives thanked first responders and said they were glad to see the ceremony was cut short in order to prioritize student safety.

“However, we are frustrated that more measures were not taken beforehand to account for the high temperatures that were forecasted well in advance and consistent with historical temperatures,” the letter said.

No shade was provided for graduating students or their families, the letter stated.

The representatives were also critical of campus officials’ decision to hold the ceremony in a football stadium, “a venue with little sun protection.”

Students’ concerns were brought up in an online petition several months ago “without any action from the university,” according to the letter.

The representatives said they understand that rising COVID-19 cases needed to be taken into account when planning the commencement, but said holding an indoor ceremony with mask enforcement would have been safer.

They also criticized May’s decision to hold a campuswide commencement, rather than breaking up the proceedings among individual colleges, saying a desire to place emphasis on the university as a whole was “insufficient reason for over 35 medical emergencies and six hospitalizations.”

Six indoor ceremonies were combined into three outdoor commencements, they said. The ceremony on Friday was delayed by two hours, leading to frustration and confusion for graduates and their guests.

The student representatives made a number of suggestions for campus officials to resolve the situation.

The Times asked Easley for comment on the concerns raised by students and families. She did not respond to those questions.

Friday’s temperatures were unusually hot for the time of year, “especially in those morning hours, already in the 70s and 80s,” Chandler-Cooley said.

The mercury rose progressively this week, she said, adding that forecasts predicted Friday and Saturday to be the hottest. An excessive heat warning was in place for most of the Sacramento Valley, which includes Davis, and into the Sierra Nevada foothills.

“This heat can impact anybody in the general public, especially when spending extended time outdoors,” Chandler-Cooley said.

Everyone should try to find air-conditioned spaces or shade, check on those who might be heat-sensitive, stay hydrated and never leave children or pets in vehicles, she said.

In Southern California, the scorching temperatures began in inland areas on Thursday, with highs getting into the 90s in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

Davis city officials opened three cooling centers to the general public and a fourth center for those experiencing homelessness.

At 5 p.m., weather service forecasters in Sacramento warned that warm temperatures overnight would provide limited relief from daytime conditions, “resulting in a high chance for heat stress/heat related illness” from Friday through Saturday.

The coolest anticipated temperatures, expected around sunrise Saturday, were in the 60s to low 70s in the valley and foothills, and 50s to 60s in the mountains, forecasters said. Gusty winds and dry conditions were expected to return Monday and Tuesday, bringing increased fire risk to the area.

The Los Angeles area also saw elevated temperatures Friday, with weather service forecasters in Oxnard warning of increased fire danger and record highs likely in interior and desert areas.

Despite sweltering conditions that extended across the Southland, only one area set a new temperature record.

Lancaster reached 104 degrees on Friday, breaking the 103-degree record set in 1985, said Kristen Stewart, a meteorologist with the weather service in Oxnard. Palmdale also reached 103 degrees, tying a record set in the same year.

Temperatures are expected to drop Saturday across Southern California, with an onshore breeze bringing relief, Stewart said.

But residents should not expect much respite from the heat, she said. Highs in the valleys are expected to be in the 90s and reaching close to 100 degrees in the Antelope Valley.

Monday will see a cooldown to the 70s and 80s along the coast and the mid-80s in the valleys, Stewart said.

The West is experiencing its most severe megadrought in a millennium, according to a new study. Scientists say climate change is playing a major role.

The hot, dry conditions in California come as climate scientists say the American West is in the midst of a megadrought.

Authors of a recent study, led by UCLA climate scientist Park Williams, concluded that the current desiccation is the driest 22-year stretch in the last 1,200 years.

The researchers found the current drought wouldn’t be nearly as severe without global warming. They estimated that 42% of the drought’s severity is attributable to higher temperatures caused by greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere.

On Thursday, fire officials from various state, county and federal agencies gathered in Los Angeles to warn residents of the current conditions and what the coming months may hold. They fear Southern California is facing a potentially treacherous fire season this year.

Angelenos, meanwhile, are grappling with unprecedented water-use restrictions after new conservation rules went into effect June 1.

The move came after the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California called for a 35% reduction in water use after California’s driest-ever start to the year.

Times staff writers Ian James, Hayley Smith and Alex Wigglesworth contributed to this report.


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