Health

In a rural California region, a plan takes shape to provide shade from dangerous heat

In a rural California region, a plan takes shape to provide shade from dangerous heat

MECCA, Calif. — When Limba Contreras moved to the desert community of Oasis, California, about 50 years ago, her family relied on a water cooler to keep temperatures inside their home comfortable. Other times, they sprayed each other with a hose outside.

But when the heat topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit (about 38 Celsius), the cooler was futile, and the hose was a temporary reprieve.

“We suffered because of the heat and because we didn’t have any other resource,” said Contreras, a retired elementary school librarian.

Contreras and her family now have air conditioning, but she worries about the lack of shade in playgrounds and fields in the few parks they have.

“In the midst of extreme heat, the children can’t play because there’s no shade,” said Contreras on Saturday in the Eastern Coachella Valley, where elected officials, community leaders and others gathered at a park for the inauguration of a shade equity master plan.

The Eastern Coachella Valley, an important agricultural area in Southern California, is a hot and arid place, with summer temperatures frequently rising above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Residents in this rural desert in Riverside County are mostly Latinos, Spanish speakers and low-income, and many live in mobile homes without air conditioning and work in fields under the sizzling sun.

But trees, green spaces and buildings that could offer refuge from the sun are sparse, and that can increase dangerous heat stress on the body.

From 2013 to 2023, heat was a contributing or underlying cause of 143 deaths in the Coachella Valley, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office. They had no statistics for Eastern Coachella Valley, the area where this shade equity plan is in play. Across the United States, heat was a factor in nearly 1,960 deaths in 2023.

Every year, heat kills more people than floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined, and experts warn that extreme heat will become more intense, frequent and lethal with climate change.

Studies have shown that shade can reduce heat stress on the human body between 25% and 35% throughout the day. Shaded areas can be 20 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than surfaces without it, according to an estimate by the EPA.

Many cities across the U.S. — including New York, Miami and Austin — have adopted climate action and resilience plans that use trees as a defense against the broiling stone and asphalt that raise temperatures in urban areas. But fewer have taken the idea to less developed…

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