MENDOCINO Co, CA, 9/21/22 — A significant heat wave at the beginning of September broke records, bringing an all-time high temperature of 117 degrees in Ukiah and triple-digit highs lasting for days throughout inland Mendocino County. Social Services staff activated the department’s phone tree and got on the road, making more than 800 calls to reach houseless community members, those who receive in-home support, at-risk youth, foster families, and PG&E medical baseline customers around the county.
These responses, coupled with no large power outages, seem to have paid off; a spokesperson for Adventist Health told The Mendocino Voice that the hospitals only treated one person for heat stroke. But as extreme heat like this becomes more common, Mendocino County’s Department of Public Health has new questions to answer and new responses to develop, according to Director Anne Molgaard.
“We’re especially concerned about people who are low-income and people who are living off the grid, or are living on the grid but in an area that does not have consistent service,” she told The Voice in a phone conversation in mid-September. “We’re gathering information right now about not only where these people are located within our county, but what the best practices are, that other places that have started to experience these same heat waves are doing.”
Mendocino County has typically operated on a system in which cooling stations — where people can get some water and spend time in air-conditioning during the day’s hottest hours — only open when temperatures are more than 100 degrees for three days in a row and more than 70 degrees at night, Molgaard said.
Watching temperatures climb over the weekend, when the National Weather Service in Eureka had issued an excessive heat warning to begin that Sunday, she recalled, “I felt so guilty when we didn’t have any cooling stations open yet.” Finally, temperatures were not going to fall below 70 one night, and Public Health initiated its Heat Response Plan and urged partners to act.
“We don’t take over during a heat alert,” Molgaard explained. “We rely on our partners. So for example, the city of Ukiah themselves opened [a cooling station]. And they even opened it on Labor Day, and the person who opened it was Sage Sangiacomo, the city manager, because he didn’t want to have to call in any of his staff on a holiday. He opened it that very first day when we realized, ‘Oh no, this is going to get worse, not better.’”
Molgaard said Public Health has now begun to receive new direction from the state in the weeks since, as California reels from the high temperatures and reckons with the reality that these events will only become more frequent due to the changing climate.
“Everybody realizes we can’t just treat this as a once-in-15-years occurrence,” she said. “This is going to be happening more and more, so now the state is getting a little bit more involved — and that’s good for us.”
The state’s public health department is beginning to develop a new formula for opening cooling stations in response to heat waves. But it also seems cooling stations can go underutilized. According to Heidi Corrado, program administrator of Mendocino County Public Health’s Emergency Preparedness Unit, the City of Ukiah only reported attendance at its cooling station on Tuesday, though the station was open all weekdays, and areas open for people to escape the heat in Covelo didn’t see increased traffic. Public Health staff believe this is primarily due to the fact that the county did not fall victim to rolling blackouts.
“I credit the people of California for heeding the Flex Alerts and conserving power during critical periods, so we could keep the power on for everyone,” Corrado wrote in an email to The Voice “The heat would have been far more dangerous had we not had power.”
The communications staffing for the local Public Health department is also fairly new, and staff are refining how they notify the community about disasters and safety risks.
“We’ve had some excellent learning opportunities over the last year and are identifying areas of focus, including developing staff capacity to be involved in the many professional information and resource meetings, and community knowledge and info-sharing platforms that are vital in urgent situations,” spokesperson Maya Stuart wrote in an email to The Voice.
Social Services, the department primarily responsible for checking on Mendocino County’s most vulnerable during heat events like these, still has a 27% staffing shortage.
“We are refining our processes and strategizing new ways to increase staff recruitment while supporting our current employees and their workloads,” spokesperson Willow Anderson told The Voice. “We are very proud of the commitment and dedication our staff bring to their work and the level of care they provide for our community members.”
In moves that could have a real benefit for small rural departments that are often stretched thin, Governor Gavin Newsom recently approved several pieces of legislation aimed at both heat preparedness and climate mitigation. Goals of these bills include the formation of an advisory committee to study how extreme heat affects California’s workers and economy (AB 1643); the formation of the nation’s first extreme heat advance warning and ranking system (AB 2238); and critically, funding for the creation of climate resilience districts at the local level to tackle extreme environmental challenges including high heat (SB 852).
These build on Protecting Californians From Extreme Heat: A State Action Plan to Build Community Resilience, which California issued in September. Its priorities include:
• Implement a statewide public health monitoring system to identify heat illness events early, monitor trends, and track illnesses to intervene and prevent further harm.
• Accelerate readiness and protection of communities most impacted by extreme heat, including through cooling schools and homes, supporting community resilience centers, and expanding nature-based solutions.
• Protect vulnerable populations through codes, standards, and regulations.
• Expand economic opportunity and build a climate smart workforce that can operate under and address extreme heat.
• Increase public awareness to reduce risks posed by extreme heat.
• Protect natural and working lands, ecosystems, and biodiversity from the impacts of extreme heat.
“It’ll be interesting to come back in a year from now, and five years from now, and see what new programs exist within Public Health,” Molgaard said. “We have no doubt that we are going to have to put people and resources toward climate change and its effect on our population here locally.”
For information on extreme heat or to reach Public Health with other concerns, residents can get in touch with the business hours call center at (707) 472-2759; head to the Public Health Facebook page; or sign up for E-notifications from Public Health.
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.