FRESNO, Calif. - The death toll from California's record-breaking heat wave reached 132 on Friday, the first day in nearly two weeks that temperatures were expected to stay below 100 degrees across most of the state.
The big jump in the death count came primarily from Los Angeles County and the Central Valley counties of Merced and Stanislaus, where coroners struggled to keep up.
"This is unprecedented for the county," said Stanislaus County Office of Emergency Services spokesman David Jones. The county, home to Modesto, typically sees one heat-related death a year, he said. On Friday, it reported 29.
The vast majority of deaths believed linked to the heat wave were elderly people, whose bodies don't cope as well in the heat. But there have been younger victims as well: A 38-year-old gardener collapsed on the job and died last week; on Wednesday, two brothers, ages 57 and 68, were found dead in a home without air conditioning.
Many of them probably underestimated the potential for harm, county coroners told The Associated Press.
"They've dealt with heat forever," said Sgt. Sue Norris, supervisor of the Merced County coroner's office. "They don't think that it could be a real danger."
The entire state has been sizzling in triple-digit temperatures since July 16. Only Friday were the heat advisories finally lifted and meteorologist said the heat wave appear to be nearing its end.
"By Monday, Tuesday we'll be even cooler than normal," said Mike Delman, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service. In the extended forecast, "It might warm up a bit, but nothing like what we had."
The Central Valley bore the brunt of the heat wave with temperatures hitting 115 degrees. On Thursday, aid workers in Fresno went door-to-door checking on the elderly as the number of suspected heat-related deaths climbed.
In the Fresno County morgue, the walk-in freezer was stuffed with bodies, with some piled on top of others, said Coroner Loralee Cervantes. With limited air conditioning, employees worked in sweltering heat as they investigated at least 22 possible heat-related deaths.
State Sen. Dean Florez said as he called on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in the Central Valley to make more financial and personnel resources available.
"The conditions, staying this hot for this long, are simply too much for the most vulnerable residents," Florez said.
Schwarzenegger said he had already taken action to help residents cope with the heat, pointing to 75 cooling centers available at fairgrounds and conservation measures to avoid blackouts.
"There's not much more we can do," he said. "I don't know what it means to declare a state of emergency when we're already doing everything."
At least six Central Valley counties declared local states of emergency that allow farmers to bury livestock killed by the heat in landfills or on their own properties - disposal methods not normally allowed by state water laws.
The number of consecutive days when temperatures surpassed 110 degrees was unprecedented for California, meteorologists said. Woodland Hills, which set a Los Angeles County record of 119 degrees on Saturday, hit 102 degrees on Thursday, its 22nd day of triple-digit heat.
Californians trying to keep cool have also set records for energy consumption, forcing some voluntary blackouts and even catching the Department of Water and Power officials by surprise.
Before this week, the utility's highest peak energy use was recorded at 5,661 megawatts. The heat wave created a demand of 6,165 megawatts - shocking officials who predicted usage wouldn't top 6,100 megawatts for another four years.
"They didn't even believe our customers could ever put such a load on our system - that we could even have energy use from our customers up to that kind level," DWP board member David Nahai told the Los Angeles Times. The utility serves 1.4 million customers.
July has seen extreme heat across the country. In St. Louis, the misery was worsened by storms that knocked down power lines last week in the worst blackout in city history. Most of the 12 Missouri deaths attributed to the heat wave occurred in the St. Louis area, where about 34,000 homes and businesses remained without power Thursday.
Missouri regulators opened an investigation into whether AmerenUE and other utilities were properly prepared for the storms, and whether they responded adequately.