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

An unusual spate of heat-related deaths makes tangible the fatal consequences of a changing climate.


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Ellen Chung and Jonathan Gerrish with their daughter, Miju.Credit…Steven Jeffe

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.”


The remote area in the Sierra National Forest where the family was reportedly found.Credit…Craig Kohlruss/The Fresno Bee, via Associated Press

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:

How to stay cool in a heat wave.

How much hotter is your hometown now than when you were born?

The new infrastructure bill is the nation’s first major investment in climate resilience.


Chesa Boudin, the district attorney of San Francisco, has faced sharp pushback from residents who say his policies have made the city less safe.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

If you read one story, make it this

Voters will decide whether the San Francisco district attorney should remain in office.


Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the blood testing start-up Theranos.Credit…John G Mabanglo/EPA, via Shutterstock

The rest of the news

Theranos case: Here are key takeaways from Week 10 of the trial against the former Silicon Valley executive Elizabeth Holmes.

U.S. reopening: Here’s what to expect from holiday travel during the second year of the pandemic.

“Rust” lawsuit: A crew member from the set of “Rust” sued the movie’s producers, Alec Baldwin and several other members of the crew, accusing them of failing to follow safety protocols that would have prevented a fatal shooting.

Misgendering law: The California Supreme Court agreed to decide on a 2017 lower-court ruling that allows nursing home workers to be criminally prosecuted for deliberately misgendering patients, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.


High compliance with new vaccine rules: More than 93 percent of bars, nightclubs and lounges in Los Angeles County are complying with Covid-19 vaccination verification mandates, NBC Los Angeles reports.

U.S.C. news: A Calabasas parent was sentenced to six weeks in prison after being accused of paying to get his daughter into U.S.C., The Associated Press reports.

Plus, the university granted Representative Karen Bass a full scholarship, worth $95,000, while she was in Congress, The Los Angeles Times reports.

The university also hired a for-profit firm to recruit students to a pricey social work master’s program. Graduates are now earning low salaries and saddled with debt, The Wall Street Journal reports.


Best reading scores in the state: Low-income schools in the Central Valley found ways to push their students’ reading scores to among the highest in the state, The Fresno Bee reports.

E.P.A. lawsuit: Several groups filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to address air quality issues in the San Joaquin Valley, The Fresno Bee reports.


A floating encampment faces eviction: A community of people living illegally on boats in the San Francisco Bay are now being pushed out, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Bridge toll inequity: Economic justice advocates are calling for an overhaul of the region’s system of penalties for late payment of bridge tolls, claiming the current situation is a debt trap for many drivers, KQED reports.

Mendocino marijuana corruption: Three Mendocino marijuana farmers and a former police officer from Texas have filed a lawsuit against law enforcement agencies, saying officials stole marijuana, cash and guns, NBC Bay Area reports.


Padma Lakshmi preparing her turkey.Credit…Christopher Testani for The New York Times

What we’re eating

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

Where we’re traveling

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 We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.


Credit…Lauren Cowart and S. Bola Okoye

And before you go, some good news

Averi Harper and Kenneth Robinson met on a train in San Francisco six years ago. Soon after, they had their first date at Mission Dolores Park.

Last month, they got married. Read their full love story in The Times.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back tomorrow.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Phobos and Deimos, for Mars (5 letters).

Soumya Karlamangla, Steven Moity and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at

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