As record heatwave punishes Bay Area inland, health and equity concerns rise


Promises of extreme heat were delivered early and intensified throughout the day Monday, particularly in high areas away from the coast. As preliminary records melted in the nine-county area, airports in Sonoma and Napa counties recorded all-time highs and the cities of Concord, Fairfield and Livermore all saw their mercury shoot into the 90s as early as 10 a.m. morning to well over 110 degrees by late afternoon.

By comparison, the temperature at 3 p.m. at the Oakland Museum was a relatively mild 96.

“We considered today to be the peak of the heat event, and so far it’s unfolding,” said National Weather Service forecaster Brooke Bingaman. “That’s the bottom line.”

Heat is responsible for more deaths than any other weather-related hazard in the country, according to US natural hazard statistics. For households without air conditioning, the health risks are intensified.

“Many hot indoor places don’t get cold at night, so the human body doesn’t have a break,” Bingaman explained. “Our challenge closer to the coast is that we’re dealing with a population where a lot of people don’t have air conditioning.”

At the Concord Senior Center, which served as a cooling center on Monday, people were “staggering in” throughout the day, facilities manager Marina Calderon said.

“It seems like they all have the same story: ‘We live in our cars and it’s like we live in an oven,'” she said. “Or they’re elderly and not able to get their AC to work for some reason.”

The Concord Library once served as the city of East Bay’s cooling center, but it was closed for renovations on Monday. Calderon said that might confuse those who would typically seek him out. She said there would probably be more people showing up, but “they’re used to going to the library and don’t know where to go.”

A man takes shelter from the sun while waiting for a bus in Oakland. Heat warnings and advisories have been extended through Thursday.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Research shows that oppressive heat is not felt evenly across society. A 2021 study published in the Journal Plos One found that low-income neighborhoods had on average more than 15% less tree cover and were 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than their high-income counterparts.

According a 2020 study published in the journal Climate. Using historic redlining maps from the Home Owners’ Loan Corp., the study found that historically redlined neighborhoods were more likely to experience extreme heat.

But Jennifer Burney, an environmental scientist at UC San Diego, said the same heat vulnerabilities can also be found in new cities.

“So this suggests that it’s not just the legacy of an explicitly discriminatory housing policy that is somehow passed on to future generations,” Burney said. “We know this to be true for sure. But in addition, the default settings for how governments go about zoning and permits are creating these disparities again.

Three years ago, several Alameda County government agencies worked together to launch the Cooling Our Communities program, a tree planting and heat preparation pilot project. The county created heat vulnerability maps, using characteristics such as socioeconomic status, to determine where to focus their tree planting and community outreach work.

A sign on the door of the Lori Austin Gallery in Healdsburg invites people inside to enjoy the art and air conditioning.

A sign on the door of the Lori Austin Gallery in Healdsburg invites people inside to enjoy the art and air conditioning.

Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

“When planning department staff saw maps of Alameda County overlaid on factors that contribute to heat vulnerability, such as low tree cover, they wanted to take steps to reduce heat vulnerability in the unincorporated communities,” said Sarah Church, Alameda County Sustainability Project Manager. General Service Agency Office of Sustainability, said in an email. “They focused their efforts on Ashland and Cherryland, where the tree cover was less than 1%.

The program ran from 2019 until this year, expanded to other unincorporated communities in the East Bay, known as the Eden Area, and resulted in the planting of more of 300 trees and the creation of multilingual heat and health paperbacks.

Also in the East Bay, efforts have been made to establish resilience centres, where community members can go when temperatures are too high. Shina Robinson, manager of resilience centers at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, said the network and its partners plan to establish its first resilience center in Chinatown in Oakland, New York. the soon-to-be-renovated Lincoln Recreation Center.

A man rides a bike in the shade at Lake Merritt in Oakland.

A man rides a bike in the shade at Lake Merritt in Oakland.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

Robinson said the Asian Pacific Environmental Network will adapt its resilience center to the community, making it a place where people can come to escape poor air quality, charge their phones, refrigerate their medicine and more. Robinson said community members have had to fend for themselves and that finding just climate solutions and reinvesting in the community are essential steps in addressing environmental racism.

“People shouldn’t have been in sacrifice zones to begin with,” Robinson said.

As community stakeholders brace for an increasingly hot future, Bay Area residents are improvising ways to cope with the suffocating here and now.

The thermometer read 105 after lunch at Healdsburg Veterans Memorial Beach, where a modest crowd remained mostly in the wooded grassy area above the gravel shore.

The men slept in the shade with straw hats over their faces. The boomboxes played crooner ballads. The children were swinging in hammocks suspended between the trees. The smell of barbecue wafted through the warm thick air.

A park staff member speculated that most people opted against inland river beaches once they got out and felt the heat, instead of escaping to the coast.

Some braved the sun by wading through the Russian River.

Myra Perez of Sonoma bought air conditioning for her apartment just two years ago during an incessantly hot and smoky season when she added window units to the kitchen and two bedrooms.

Sitting in the shallow water near the shore, she joked that it was possibly the warmest she had ever been. Her children Cristoval, 6, and Emiliano, 3, played in the water, apparently unaffected by the heat.

“It’s too hot to barbecue,” she said. “We’re going to In-N-Out.”

JK Dineen and Julie Johnson are writers for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Chasity Hale is a former Chronicle intern. Email:, Twitter: @sfjkdineen, @chas_hale, @juliejohnson


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