Tragic Heatwave Fatality in Death Valley National Park: The Unforgiving Realities of Extreme Temperatures

The National Park Service (NPS) announced in a statement that a 71-year-old man had passed away at a trailhead in Death Valley National Park on Tuesday afternoon, when temperatures had reached 121°F.

The NPS reports that the man, later identified as Steve Curry by the Inyo County Coroner, died after collapsing outside of the Golden Canyon restroom.

He had on a sun hat, a rucksack, and hiking gear. His vehicle was waiting for him in the lot.

According to a statement released by NPS, witnesses to the man’s collapse called 911 at 3:40 p.m. Within minutes, park rangers arrived at the site, began CPR, and attempted to use an AED, but ultimately were unsuccessful. Due of the extreme heat, a helicopter could not be dispatched.

The park rangers are investigating, but they believe the high temperature was a contributing role in the fatality. Nearby Furnace Creek registered a temperature of 121 degrees Fahrenheit at the time of the man’s death. The NPS speculated that the temperatures inside Golden Canyon were substantially greater than those outside because the canyon walls reflected the sun’s heat.

The Los Angeles Times spoke with Curry at Zabriskie Point, approximately two miles from his home in Golden Canyon, just hours before he passed away. He was also captured on camera shielding himself from the sun with a metal explanatory sign.

Heat Advisory in Death Valley

Authorities have warned tourists planning a summer trip to Death Valley to stick to short, air-conditioned car rides and cooler mountain hikes. Hiking at low altitudes after 10:00 a.m. has also been discouraged. According to the NPS, this may be the second death attributed to the extreme heat in Death Valley this summer. On July 3, a 65-year-old man passed away.

The National Weather Service reports that Death Valley has had temperatures of 110 degrees or higher on 28 separate days this year. Wet bulb temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or more for at least six hours are typically considered the threshold for human survival, though this number varies depending on the conditions, as UCLA climate expert Chad Thackeray told USA Today.

In order to quantify the effects of both high heat and high humidity, a metric known as the “wet bulb temperature” is employed. When a person’s internal temperature climbs above 104 degrees, they risk suffering from heat stroke. Heat stroke symptoms include:

  • A throbbing headache
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Lack of sweating despite the heat
  • Red, hot, dry skin
  • Muscle weakness or cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat (either strong or weak)
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Behavioral changes such as confusion, disorientation or staggering
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness

The government has issued a warning to everyone to stay hydrated and stay indoors if possible. They recommend that anyone experiencing heat-related sickness seek medical attention promptly and move to a cool area.

The National Weather Service predicted that from Wednesday through the weekend, more than 80 million people, or roughly a quarter of the population, would experience air temperatures or the heat index exceeding 105 degrees. This affected more than 100 million people across 15 states.

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