Valley disaster response evolved after deadly heat of 2006

jholland@modbee.comJuly 1, 2013 

— Seven years ago this month, the sun bore down and took the lives of 45 people in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

The severe heat wave — with temperatures that could be matched this week — also killed farm animals by the thousands and made life miserable for just about anyone who stepped outside.

The disaster prompted officials to revamp their response plans — and to simply remind people to check on neighbors who might lack air conditioning.

"To see people dying in this heat, it's just tragic," a fire battalion chief said at the time. "I can't imagine what it would be like to not have a choice and be forced to live in those conditions."

The heat was believed to have been the worst in three decades, and it has not been equaled since. Time will tell whether the first week of July 2013 will rival what happened over that stretch in 2006.

Modesto temperatures exceeded 100 degrees for all but one day during July 16-27 of that year, and the exception was 99 degrees. The worst of it came July 22-24, when the thermometer topped out at 111 degrees each day.

It might have been bearable, however unpleasant. What made it fatal was the lack of nighttime cooling that usually helps people and other creatures recover from a hot day. Those nights got no cooler than 84 degrees during the worst of the spell.

Heavy toll for humans and animals

The heat killed 23 people in Stanislaus County, 17 in San Joaquin County and five in Merced County, according to the state Office of Emergency Services. Many of them were seniors with underlying health problems and little or no access to air conditioning.

More than 3,000 dairy cows died in Stanislaus County and smaller numbers in Merced and San Joaquin. The financial losses to Stanislaus farmers were about a seventh of the previous year's income.

Losses of chickens and turkeys totaled several hundred thousand in the San Joaquin Valley. A shortage of rendering capacity, caused in part by the shutdown of Modesto Tallow Co., meant some of the poultry and dairy animals had to be disposed of in landfills using special permits.

In the months that followed, officials in health care, agriculture and other fields worked on preventing a recurrence. They improved their methods for declaring an emergency and keeping watch on vulnerable people, and they made sure they were ready for livestock dying in large numbers.

"We all know what we need to do to assist and protect the public," one of them said a year afterward.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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