Family disappearance reflects California's deadly heat toll

On a sunny morning in mid-August, a couple walked in the Sierra National Forest with their baby daughter and disappeared. The couple, E...


On a sunny morning in mid-August, a couple walked in the Sierra National Forest with their baby daughter and disappeared.

The couple, Ellen Chung, 30, and Jonathan Gerrish, 45, were seasoned hikers who lived in central California. So when the bodies of the couple and their daughter and dog were found on August 17, within two miles of their car, and without obvious injuries, investigators were mystified.

Perhaps they drank water poisoned by toxic algae, inhaled fumes from an abandoned mine nearby, been bitten by rattlesnakes, or struck by lightning? The theories were plentiful, but after several months the autopsies revealed another answer.

The family had died from the extreme heat.

In some ways, the conclusion was less dire than many theories, but in another sense, it was more disturbing: the young family had left for an eight-mile hike in mild weather early and did not survive.

This year alone, at least five more people are believed to have died of heat-related causes after venturing into the California wilderness. The unusual wave of deaths makes the deadly consequences of California’s hottest summer recorded and a changeable climate, in which extreme weather conditions can catch us dangerously off guard.

Drew Shindell, professor of earth sciences at Duke University, said he thought it was likely the couple “just didn’t expect the temperatures to be this hot.” He added: “The effects of climate change are not always going to hit where we expect. “

The deadly heat, of course, is not unique to California. Nearly 500,000 people die each year from unusually hot temperatures, according to a study published this year in The Lancet Planetary Health. In the United States, about 700 people die each year from heat-related causes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This summer, a scorching heat wave swept through the Pacific Northwest, shattering temperature records because it transformed an often rainy landscape into a deadly steamy.

Summer in California may be over, but fall here can still bring dangerous heat. Saturday, six weeks after summer ended, a 27-year-old woman died while hiking in Death Valley. Today, a heat wave is expected to hit southern California.

The morning Chung and Gerrish left, it was between 74 and 76 degrees. But as the day progressed, temperatures rose, investigators said, eventually reaching 109 degrees as the family climbed a steep hill. A forest fire in 2018 had also decimated the tree cover, leaving the path little shaded. Two days later, their bodies were found with an 85-ounce water bag. It was empty.

“I have never seen a death like this,” Jeremy Briese, the Mariposa County sheriff, where the couple was found at the time, said.

If there is one lesson to be learned from these shocking mishaps, it is how crucial it is to expect and adapt to extreme conditions, said Camilo Mora, professor at the University of Hawaii to Manoa and deadly heat expert.

“That’s the problem with climate change, it can turn oversights into tragedies,” Mora told me. “It can kill anyone. “

For more:

Padma Lakshmi’s Thanksgiving Turkey: roasted slowly and richly in sauce.


Today’s travel tip comes from Jeff Johnston, who recommends a part of Laguna Beach called Victoria Beach:

“This is in stark contrast to the multi-million dollar oceanfront homes along the rest of the shore. This specific rock plate appears to have been transported from the Mediterranean Sea, especially with its distinctive tower. Some people call it the ‘pirate tower’, but it was actually built in the 1920s as a fanciful staircase that leads down to the beach from a house above the cliff. This house still has the tower, but the beach is open to the public.

It’s an interesting getaway, and many locals have never heard of it.

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We will share more in future editions of the newsletter.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Family disappearance reflects California's deadly heat toll
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