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heat deaths overwhelm california coroners

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SAN FRANCISCO (July 27) - Scorching temperatures have resulted in scores of heat-related deaths since a statewide heatwave began July 16, and coroners in hard-hit Fresno Count are staking bodies two to a gurney because there are so many, the coroner said.

The number of deaths continued to rise to 81 despite a slight dip in triple-digit temperatures.

As many as 20 of the deaths are in Fresno County where medical examiners are performing autopsies nonstop and bodies are decomposing, making the causes of death difficult to determine, coroner Loralee Cervantes said.

Temperatures approached 110 in Fresno and other Central Valley cities on Wednesday, but forecasters said a slow cooling trend was under way, with highs expected to drop a few degrees by the weekend.

"We're seeing some relief coming, if you can call 105 relief," said National Weather Service forecaster Jim Dudley. "We're inching away from this superhot air mass we've had over us, though it's tricky. ... It's hard to get those things to move."

Californians were taking stock of damage wrought by the heat, from fruit and nuts scorched on the vine to a power grid battered by the constant demand for electricity.

 

Managers of the power grid were waiting for cooler weather to do maintenance after record electricity usage on Monday and Tuesday prompted officials to declare an emergency and warn of possible involuntary rolling blackouts.

"We have some balancing to do to allow as much maintenance as we can while we're in a cooling spell," said Gregg Fishman, a spokesman for Independent System Operator, which manages the grid.

While the power supply remained adequate Wednesday, the hot weather, coupled with increased usage, has blown out transformers around the state.

More than 1,100 Pacific Gas and Electric Co. transformers were damaged by the heat, leaving 1.2 million customers without power at some point since Friday, company spokesman Brian Swanson said.

The St. Louis area and the New York City borough of Queens slowly were returning to normal more than a week after weather-related blackouts.

About 51,000 customers around St. Louis still were without electricity after two storms knocked out power to more than 500,000 customers, according to Ameren Corp.

Three more deaths were blamed on the storms and blackout, bring Missouri's statewide total to nine.

In Queens, the last of the 100,000 people affected by a 10-day outage had their power restored, but Consolidated Edison still warned of lower voltage and occasional outages.

 

Other states also attributed more deaths to heat. Oklahoma officials said two people whose homes lacked air conditioners were the latest victims there, bringing to 10 the number of heat-related deaths since July 13.

California's inland valleys have registered some of the highest temperatures during the heat wave, with highs of around 115 and lows of about 90 degrees.

Near Mexico, the Border Patrol found the body of one illegal immigrant whose death might be heat-related. It was unclear whether that death was included in the heat wave toll.

Farmers who face sun-baked crops and lower milk production are rushing workers to the fields well before dawn so they can get out by late morning.

Even with misters and fans to keep cattle cool, experts estimate as much as 2 percent of the state's dairy herd may die.

The surviving cattle are producing less milk, farmers said. Dairy production in the state - No. 1 in the nation - was down as much as 15 percent in the past few days, according to the California Farm Bureau.

Though this is peak harvest time for fruits like peaches and nectarines, the heat stops the ripening process. Tomatoes being grown for salsa, ketchup and pasta sauces were found split in the fields, which will make them hard to sell.

It's too early to say what percentage of crops may be lost.

The heat might mean a slightly smaller harvest of wine grapes, said Karen Ross, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. When temperatures rise, vines stop growing to conserve water.

"They're just like people," she said. "They kind of shut down when it gets this hot."

Entry #643

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