An unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Northwest forced Lane County Public Health officials to scramble for solutions during the weekend of June 26. Eugene’s homeless population — combined with a lack of air conditioning and available city-owned buildings to serve as heat shelters — posed challenges to LPCH.
Billowing across the west, the heat wave engulfed unsuspecting Oregon communities accustomed to mild temperatures. The state’s confirmed heat-related death toll reached 83 as of Tuesday, according to the Oregon State Medical Examiner. Currently, no deaths have been reported in Lane County.
Patrick Bartlein, a professor in University of Oregon’s geography department, said there are several reasons Eugene experienced such extreme heat: large-scale, upper-level atmospheric circulation; dry surface conditions that reinforced the warming; and a strong flow of hot, dry air from the east of the Cascades into the Willamette Valley — all amplified by human-produced global warming.
“Any one of these controls could lead to warmer-than-normal conditions, but all four acting in concert is what created the extreme heat,” Bartlein said.
Eugene surpassed its previous all-time record high temperature of 108 degrees on June 27, reaching a high of 111 degrees. That day, officials postponed events in the Olympic Track and Field Trials until 8:30 p.m. due to the excessive heat.
Health and Human Services public information officer Jason Davis said the timing of the heat wave and the Olympic trials created a unique scenario where many municipal properties were not available to serve as heat shelters. Many public buildings were either closed or, in Springfield’s case, being used for the Olympic trials, he said.
Available sites also lacked adequate air conditioning due to infrequent hot weather, Davis said. Officials eventually decided on using the Main Performance Hall of Lane Events Center and made emergency provisions for air conditioning.
Davis said the next step was finding a way to transport people to the cooling center. Public health officials contacted Lane Transit District, and its staff agreed to provide free bus service to people traveling to a cooling center.
In the future, Davis said officials hope to find solutions for people staying at homeless sleeping sites who are afraid to leave their tents and belongings to travel to a cooling center.
“When you’re completely exposed to the sun, those tents are a death trap,” he said.
Public health officials invited volunteers from Greenhill Humane Society to help care for non-service animals while their owners cooled down inside the hall, Davis said. The volunteers helped transport the animals to an open-air livestock building with kennels, water, food and large fans.
Volunteers moved the animals inside a room in the events center with air conditioning on a dangerously hot night, Davis said. Non-service animals technically are not allowed inside the hall, but Davis said it was “a life and death situation” at that point.
Davis also said a lack of air conditioning in Lane County is an issue for future heat events.
UO student Lauren Assael said her apartment lacks air conditioning and thinks more air conditioning units in Eugene housing are necessary.
“Some students do not have alternative options when their apartment is 100 degrees and over,” she said. “I was lucky enough to have a friend with air conditioning, but it can be detrimental to one’s health and sleep schedule to be in conditions like that.”
UO spokesperson Saul Hubbard said students without air conditioning can go to the Knight Library or the EMU to escape the heat. He also said the EMU has weekend hours and that the university is working on additional plans like extended hours if temperatures rise.
Davis said the Main Performance Hall will reopen as a heat shelter if Lane County experiences more than 10 days over 90 degrees, over two days where the night doesn’t cool down below 80 degrees or if temperatures reach triple digits.
In the meantime, Davis said people can use grocery stores, libraries and the mall as cooling centers when needed. Parks equipped with splash pads and water features are also available to all.