Sweltering California Could Become The First State To Rank Heat Waves

When natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires or tornadoes strike in the United States, the calamities are given rankings and names to emphasize the havoc they wreak.

But no similar ranking system exists to highlight the deadly toll of extreme heat, such as the scorching heat wave that is baking the state.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has a bill on his desk that could change that by requiring the state to start ranking the severity of extreme heat events.

AB2238 would require California’s Environmental Protection Agency to create a new ranking system no later than Jan. 1, 2025. Supporters say the harm caused by heat waves is exacerbated by the lack of a clear communication tool to warn the public about dangerously high temperatures.

State Assembly Member Luz Rivas, D-North Hollywood (Los Angeles County), said heat waves are a silent killer because, although they kill more people than other extreme weather events, their toll often goes unnoticed and unreported until much later, particularly in vulnerable communities.

“Extreme heat kills, and we know it disproportionately affects lower-income communities because those individuals do not have the ability to escape the heat,” Rivas said in a statement. “We need bold action now.”

State legislators passed Rivas’ proposal before they adjourned for the year last week. If Newsom signs the bill into law, California would be the first state to have such a ranking system for heat waves.

An extreme heat wave has set record temperatures in many parts of California, fueling rapidly moving wildfires and straining the power grid to the brink of potential blackouts.

The federal government defines extreme heat as “a period of high heat and humidity with temperatures above 90 degrees for at least two to three days.”

While the National Weather Service periodically issues excessive heat warnings and advisories to direct people to precautions when the temperature soars, it doesn’t have a ranking system akin to other dangerous weather events. Even atmospheric rivers, the bands of water in the sky that rain down on California for days, have a new ranking system.

The death toll of heat waves is vastly underreported. From 2010 to 2019, California officially recorded 599 deaths from heat exposure, but the actual toll was closer to 3,900, according to an analysis from the Los Angeles Times. People of color are hospitalized and die from heat-related causes at the highest rates.

Newsom has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto AB2238; he hasn’t said whether he supports the measure. The bill passed the Legislature with unanimous bipartisan support.

The Democratic governor has been outspoken in recent weeks about his plans to step up the state’s response to heat waves and other extreme weather. California’s budget includes a record $54 billion for climate programs, including more than $300 million for heat relief.

During a news conference last week, Newsom praised legislators for approving the climate budget and said they’re ready to work together to do more on the issue.

“No one denies heat waves have existed long before climate change,” he said. “But their duration and their intensity have never been more challenging. You look at that five-day forecast, you know what I mean.”


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