'Chetco effect' surprises those who head to the coast to escape the heat

Ruth Cavaliere had some explaining to do this week at the Brookings Chamber of Commerce.

People who fled to Brookings hoping to beat the heat found themselves in one of the warmest places in Oregon. Tuesday's high temperature of 108 degrees at the Brookings airport was the hottest ever recorded in the little town that's well known for its mostly moderate climate.

"Visitors are surprised," said Cavaliere, a volunteer at the chamber office. "I have to tell them we only get a week or two of this."

"This" is the "Chetco effect," a phenomenon that occurs now and then when hot inland air flows west and funnels down the Chetco River canyon, baking a town where 80-degree days qualifies as a heat wave.

Locals respond with several tried- and-true remedies. The fortunate few turn on their air conditioners. Everyone else opens all doors and windows and turns on fans. Many head to the river or the ocean for relief.

"The water is so cold that all you have to do is put your feet in and you cool right down," said Gail Mentzer of Brookings. She and her husband, Bud, took their grandkids to Harris Beach State Park Wednesday, when the temperature flirted with triple digits again in town.

Like everyone else who spends much time in Brookings, the Mentzers know that you don't have to travel far to escape the heat. The hot air is extremely localized, and temperatures can be 20 degrees cooler five or 10 miles out of town.

"It's literally just a matter of a few miles," said Rick Holtz, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Medford. "They don't have to go far to get away from it."

"It's not like Medford, where there's no place else to go," said Rick Yock, who grows hydrangeas on 110 acres just south of town. Yock had to turn on his irrigation system Tuesday to prevent heat damage to his plants.

"Anything over 80 degrees we have to go into crop cooling," he said.

Even with extra watering, the extreme heat burnt the foliage on some of Yock's plants, which are accustomed to temperatures in the 60s and 70s, he said.

"You can't save everything," he said. "If you try to save everything, you can lose everything."

Some people who tried to fire up seldom-used air conditioners discovered they no longer worked. Others were disappointed to discover their home heat pumps (which can also cool interior air) wouldn't work in the cooling mode.

"We've been overwhelmed with calls," said Cecilia Omande of Frank's Heating and Refrigeration in Brookings. "People who have a heat pump and never use (the air conditioning) don't realize they still need to service them."

The hot spell provoked a predictable run on window fans and room air conditioners at local stores. You couldn't buy a fan at Kerr Ace Hardware Wednesday, and all the room air conditioners had been sold, too, said Marty Clary, one of the clerks.

Clary said he slept well Tuesday night despite the heat because his house has a heat pump. Others passed the night in sultry conditions reminiscent of New Orleans or St. Louis.

"It was really hard to sleep," said Hugh Norton of Brookings.

Fortunately for Brookings folks, their taste of Hades is usually brief.

"When we get this, we usually only get it for three days," said Yock, the hydrangea grower. "By the third day it usually starts to cool down."

Forecasters were predicting a comparatively mild high temperature of 83 degrees for Brookings today and highs in the low 70s for Friday and the weekend, while Medford residents were expecting high temperatures to remain in the upper 90s or low 100s through Sunday.

"We always know we've only got three days," Yock said.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.