Family’s Disappearance Reflects Toll of California’s Deadly Heat

On a sunny morning in mid-August, a couple hiked into the Sierra National Forest with their baby daughter and disappeared.

The couple, Ellen Chung, 30, and Jonathan Gerrish, 45, were seasoned hikers who lived in Central California. So when the bodies of the couple and their daughter and dog were found on Aug. 17, less than two miles from their car, and with no obvious injuries, investigators were mystified.

Maybe they drank water poisoned by toxic algae, inhaled fumes from a nearby abandoned mine, were bitten by rattlesnakes, or struck by lightning? The theories were plentiful, but after several months, autopsies revealed another answer.

The family had died from extreme heat.

In some ways the conclusion was less nefarious than the many theories, but in another sense, it was more disturbing: The young family had set out early for an eight-mile hike in mild weather, and somehow had not survived.

Just this year, at least five other people are thought to have died from heat-related causes after venturing into California’s wilderness. The unusual spate of fatalities makes tangible the deadly consequences of California’s hottest summer on record and of a changing climate, in which extreme weather can catch us dangerously off guard.

Drew Shindell, a professor of earth science at Duke University, said he thought it was likely the couple “just weren’t expecting the temperatures to be that hot.” He added, “The effects of a changing climate are not going to always hit where we expect.”

Deadly heat, of course, is not unique to California. Close to 500,000 people die per year from abnormally hot temperatures, according to one study published this year in The Lancet Planetary Health. In the United States, about 700 people die from heat-related causes per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This summer, a blistering heat wave swept across the Pacific Northwest, shattering temperature records as it transformed an often rainy landscape into one that was fatally scorching.

The summer in California may be over, but autumn here can still bring dangerous heat. On Saturday, six weeks after the end of summer, a 27-year-old woman died on a hike in Death Valley. Today, a heat wave is expected to arrive in Southern California.

On the morning Chung and Gerrish set out, it was between 74 and 76 degrees. But as the day went on, temperatures rose, investigators said, eventually reaching up to 109 degrees as the family ascended a steep incline. A 2018 wildfire had also decimated the tree cover, leaving the path with little shade. Two days later, their bodies were found with an 85-ounce water bladder. It was empty.

“I’ve never seen a death like this,” Jeremy Briese, the sheriff of Mariposa County, where the couple was found, said at the time.

If there is any lesson to take from these shocking mishaps, it is how crucial it is that we come to expect and adapt to extreme conditions, said Camilo Mora, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and an expert in fatal heat.

“That’s the thing with climate change, it can turn oversights into tragedies,” Mora told me. “This can kill anybody.”

For more:

Padma Lakshmi’s Thanksgiving turkey: slow roasted and richly sauced.

Today’s travel tip comes from Jeff Johnston, who recommends a portion of Laguna Beach called Victoria Beach:

“It stands in stark contrast to the multimillion-dollar beachfront homes along the rest of the shore. This specific rocky patch looks as if it’s been transported from the Mediterranean Sea, especially with its distinctive tower. Some people refer to it as the “pirate tower” but it was actually built in the 1920s as a fanciful staircase that leads down to the beach from a house above on the cliff. That house still owns the tower, but the beach is open to the public.

It’s an interesting getaway, and many locals have never heard of it.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

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