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The Sparks Lake wildfire, British Columbia, seen from the air on June 29, 2021.

-/AFP/Getty Images

A record-shattering heat wave in Western Canada and the northwestern United States is believed to have killed hundreds of people in British Columbia, with many being elderly people who lived alone.

B.C. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe urged British Columbians to check on friends, family and neighbours, and said the coroners service will be conducting a review to look for patterns in efforts to prevent similar deaths. The cities of Vancouver and Burnaby will also be launching separate reviews.

The heat wave, which began pushing up temperatures on the West Coast late last week, has set records across the Prairies, prompted heat warnings in the territories and as far east as Manitoba, and is expected to bring the worst to Alberta on Thursday. Alberta has already seen an increase in emergency room visits as the heat strains the province’s electricity grid.

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The intense heat has also left much it the region tinder dry and under extreme fire risk, including in Lytton, B.C., which has broken successive records for the hottest temperature recorded in Canada and where a wildfire prompted an evacuation of the entire community on Wednesday.

Between last Friday and early afternoon Wednesday, the BC Coroners Service received 486 reports of sudden and unexpected deaths – a 195-per-cent increase from the approximately 165 deaths the service would see in a typical five-day period. The number will go up as more reports are entered into the system, Ms. Lapointe said.

“While it is too early to say with certainty how many of these deaths are heat related, it is believed likely that the significant increase in deaths reported is attributable to the extreme weather B.C. has experienced and continues to impact many parts of our province,” Ms. Lapointe said Wednesday.

The coroners’ service will review a number of factors – such as age, underlying health conditions and type of home – to look for patterns, Ms. Lapointe said. It will then work with provincial health officials to develop recommendations to prevent future deaths. A preliminary analysis is expected to take several months.

The heat wave has wreaked havoc across B.C., causing huge backlogs in emergency response and pushing schools and restaurants to close. Fans are sold out as soon as shelves are restocked and many hotels across the region were fully booked on the hottest days by locals seeking an air-conditioned reprieve.

In Lytton, where temperatures reached 49.6 on Tuesday and has been in the high 40s for much of the week, Mayor Jan Polderman issued the evacuation order Wednesday and said on Twitter that the wildfire was threatening structures and the safety of residents.

“All residents are advised to leave the community and go to a safe location,” Polderman said. “Information regarding emergency support services will be announced as it becomes available.”

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Erica Berg, a provincial fire information officer, said the evacuation order was issued about an hour after the blaze began but she did not know the size of it.

“We’re in intense response mode so our main priority is getting resources to the area,” she said.

Lytton Councillor Robert Leitch says the fire at the top of the mountain had gotten “intensely” larger overnight. With the winds picking up Wednesday morning, the fire was pushed northward, just east of the village.

“So that’s fire No. 1,” he explained from Ashcroft, where he had taken refuge.

Then early Wednesday evening, something caught fire at the south end of the village – a separate fire, he said.

“That fire started at 5:15 and [by] 5:30 it was halfway through town basically,” he said.

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Mr. Leitch looked outside, noticed black smoke and said to his partner “that’s within the village limits.” They decided to load their truck up and leave.

“Within 15 minutes, we loaded all our stuff up, and the fire was within 100 metres of the house; that’s how fast it was.”

They knocked on neighbours’ doors; said no evacuation alerts or orders were issued.

“There was no one from the regional district telling us to get out or anything,” he said. “It was: you see the fire, and you’re gone.”

He said at least two buildings had been completely burned and he didn’t know if people were still in town.

“The situation is still really bad,” he said.

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Scott Hildebrand, chief administrative officer of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, said the evacuation order was issued as soon as possible.

“It didn’t matter because people were already fleeing,’' he said, adding smoke blanketed the area within minutes and structures were burning as residents left.

Hotel rooms around the area were already booked by people seeking relief from the heat wave and by those getting away for Canada Day as most COVID-19 restrictions in the province were lifted, as well as by crews working on a pipeline project, said Mr. Hildebrand.

He said about 1,000 people in First Nations communities may also be ordered to evacuate, but it was hard to get in contact with their local governments.

Jo-Anne Beharrell and Marshall Potts were ordered from their home on Tuesday, a day before the latest evacuation alert.

They first spotted the fire around 5 p.m. on Monday from their kitchen window when it was about 1.5 kilometres from their front yard.

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``It looked like, you know, a small brush fire but we knew there was a problem,’' Mr. Potts said in an interview Wednesday evening from Pinantan Lake, just outside of Kamloops where the couple are staying with family.

Ms. Beharrell said the heat wave has made the area “very dry, very dusty.”

“I’m telling you it was like being in the desert,” she said.

They drove back to the village Wednesday afternoon to check on their friends and neighbours.

“There’s a massive, massive white cloud over the whole area,” Ms. Beharrell said.

“The smoke is in various colors. ... It definitely feels dystopian, that’s for sure. It definitely feels apocalyptic.”

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Major highways in the area, including the Trans-Canada Highway, were closed because of the fire.

The “heat dome” responsible for the extreme temperatures is expected to continue moving east. Edmonton is forecast to hit 37 on Thursday, which would set a new record, with forecast highs of 35 in Calgary. Parts of northern Alberta have already reached 40, though temperatures in some of those places, such as Grande Prairie and Beaverlodge, are expected to gradually decline in the coming days.

UNDERNEATH THE HEAT DOME

A one-day snapshot of temperatures across Canada this week reveals that the western heat wave is an extraordinary departure from what is typical in the region at this time of year.

Red areas indicate an air temperature rise of 10-15°C when compared to the 2014-2020 average.

Yukon

NWT

Grande

Prairie

B.C.

Alta.

Jasper

Lytton

Victoria

Temperature difference vs.

the 2014–2020 average

for June 27, 2021

-15

-10

-5

0

5

10

15°C

Daily temperatures for the

month of June, by year

N/A

20

25

30

35

40

45°C

Lytton, B.C.

2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

Victoria, B.C.

2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

Jasper, Alta.

2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

Grande Prairie, Alta.

2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

MURAT yükselir / the globe and mail,

source: government of canada; nasa

UNDERNEATH THE HEAT DOME

A one-day snapshot of temperatures across Canada this week reveals that the western heat wave is an extraordinary departure from what is typical in the region at this time of year.

Red areas indicate an air temperature rise of 10-15°C when compared to the 2014-2020 average.

Yukon

NWT

Grande

Prairie

B.C.

Alta.

Jasper

Lytton

Man.

Victoria

Temperature difference vs.

the 2014–2020 average

for June 27, 2021

U.S.

-15

-10

-5

0

5

10

15°C

Daily temperatures for the

month of June, by year

N/A

20

25

30

35

40

45°C

Lytton, B.C.

2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

Victoria, B.C.

2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

Jasper, Alta.

2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

Grande Prairie, Alta.

2021

2020

2019

2018

2017

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

MURAT yükselir / the globe and mail, source:

government of canada; nasa

UNDERNEATH THE HEAT DOME

A one-day snapshot of temperatures across Canada this week reveals that the western heat wave is an extraordinary departure from what is typical in the region at this time of year.

Yukon

NWT

Nunavut

Grande

Prairie

B.C.

Red areas indicate an air temperature rise of 10-15°C when compared to the 2014-2020 average.

Alta.

Sask.

Man.

Jasper

Lytton

Victoria

Temperature difference vs.

the 2014–2020 average

for June 27, 2021

U.S.

-15

-10

-5

0

5

10

15°C

Daily temperatures for the month of June, by year

N/A

20

25

30

35

40

45°C

Lytton, B.C.

Victoria, B.C.

2021

2021

2020

2020

2019

2019

2018

2018

2017

2017

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

Jasper, Alta.

Grande Prairie, Alta.

2021

2021

2020

2020

2019

2019

2018

2018

2017

2017

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

June 1

5

10

15

20

25

30

MURAT yükselir / the globe and mail, source: government of canada; nasa

B.C.’s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the government would use the findings of the BC Coroners Service’s investigation to guide the response to future heat waves, which he noted are expected to become more frequent due to climate change. He added that the government is overhauling its emergency-management law and will incorporate any lessons from the past week, which could include requiring municipalities to have plans in place to respond to extreme heat alerts.

“We can’t ignore the possibility of a next time, and it’s clear that we can’t rely on what we’ve done in the past,” Mr. Farnworth said.

Isobel Mackenzie, B.C.’s advocate for seniors, said she was distressed to see the growing number of deaths. The inference she has drawn from reports she has reviewed is that those who have died were seniors who lived alone in apartments.

“Most of these were found by the police – they were deceased when the police arrived – which means that somebody discovered them,” Ms. Mackenzie said. “So the question is: Who’s out there that hasn’t been discovered yet?”

Vancouver Police Sergeant Steve Addison said police responded to 53 sudden death calls on Tuesday, and a total of 98 since Friday, with the majority believed to be heat-related. Two-thirds of the victims are 70 or older, and they were in homes across the city, he said.

Meanwhile, Albertans are bracing for the arrival of hotter temperatures on Thursday. Premier Jason Kenney said Alberta’s emergency management agency is keeping an eye on the situation and urged people to take precautions to cope with the heat.

“Look out for your neighbours,” he told reporters. “If people take care, I believe we can get through this. It’s not the first time we’ve had a heat wave in Alberta and it won’t be the last.”

Sue Henry, chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency, said officials in the city have set up water wagons around the city so people can refill their bottles. All splash pools, wading pools and water fountains are also operational, and the city is working with agencies such as the Salvation Army to hand out bottled water in heavily trafficked areas.

Alpha House, which has a homeless shelter in Calgary and another in Lethbridge, has been sending outreach teams to check in on people who are unhoused. They’ve been handing out cold bottled water and hats to provide people with some relief from the sun, said Shaundra Bruvall, the communications and funds development co-ordinator.

“In extreme temperatures of course we know that that puts folks outside at greater risk for dehydration [and] heat stroke,” Ms. Bruvall said.

Experts have linked the heat wave with climate change, which they say is making such extreme weather more common and more dangerous. The Canadian Institute for Climate Choices published a report last month that warned of the escalating health costs associated with climate change and such extreme weather.

The report said the number of “dangerously hot days,” defined as above the threshold for heat-related deaths, are projected to range from 75 to 100 days a year in the coming decades. The report concluded that could cost billions of dollars a year in lost productivity while also increasing the amount of ground-level ozone, a component of smog that could kill hundreds of tens of thousands of people a year.

Ian Mauro, who teaches at the University of Winnipeg and runs the Prairie Climate Centre, said a warming climate is particularly risky for vulnerable people with underlying health risk or other social vulnerabilities.

“I think what we’re seeing in the West right now should ring the alarm bells at the highest level, from small communities, all the way to provincial, territorial and federal governments that we need to address climate change at source,” said Dr. Mauro, who was an adviser on the Climate Choices report.

“We can adapt and try to modify our lives, but when you look at the extremes that are starting to happen around the world, and now knocking on Canada’s doorstep.”

Sir David King, a former British chief scientific adviser and current chair of the international Climate Crisis Advisory Group, said the extreme weather is a “painful reminder” that people are dying because of the world’s continued dependence on fossil fuels.

“If we do not take immediate action now to reduce and remove greenhouse gases in the air, and repair parts of the world that are already past the tipping point, these events will grow in frequency with even more tragic but preventable consequences,” he said.

With files from The Canadian Press

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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