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Paramedics and firefighters place a man in an ambulance after responding to an SRO in the Downtown Eastside during a heat wave in Vancouver on June 29, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

An unprecedented heat wave in Western Canada has overwhelmed emergency services in British Columbia and is believed to have contributed to dozens of deaths across the province.

Temperatures on Monday broke 59 historic heat records in B.C., including the all-time Canadian heat record. The new record, 47.9 C, was set in Lytton, about a three-hour drive northeast of Vancouver.

The extreme temperatures caused a ripple effect throughout the province’s emergency response system, overwhelming dispatchers, filling emergency departments and stretching ambulance wait times to hours. The same heat wave has hammered Alberta and the northwestern United States with record-setting temperatures and prompted heat warnings as it moves into the territories and as far east as Manitoba.

Between Friday and mid-afternoon Monday, the BC Coroners Service received 233 reports of deaths, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said. The service would typically receive about 130 reports of deaths over any given four-day period, and Ms. Lapointe believes the extreme heat to have been the reason for the increase. The number will increase as data is updated.

Heat wave gripping much of Western Canada brings unusually high nighttime temperatures

In Vancouver, police have responded to more than 65 sudden death calls since Friday, including 20 by early afternoon on Tuesday, with the vast majority being heat-related, Vancouver Police Sergeant Steve Addison said. The department typically responds to between 70 and 80 sudden death calls in the month of June. By Tuesday, it had responded to about 140.

In neighbouring Burnaby, RCMP responded to at least 34 sudden death calls of the same nature between Monday and noon on Tuesday.

Sgt. Addison said the heat has resulted in “unprecedented challenges,” and that the Vancouver Police Department has redeployed members from other sections, such as investigations, and is calling officers at home to deal with the backlog.

“We have never experienced anything like this heat in Vancouver and, sadly, people are dying as a result of it,” he said. “Our officers are stretched quite thin but we’re still doing everything we can to keep people safe.”

Meanwhile, paramedics responded to 140 heat-related calls on Sunday and 248 on Monday, according to BC Emergency Health Services. The service responds to an average of 1,450 medical calls a day; on Monday it responded to 1,975 calls, a one-day record.

There was also a surge in visits to local hospitals. Neil Barclay, executive medical director for access at Fraser Health, B.C.’s largest health authority, said its 12 emergency departments saw a total of 2,246 visits on Monday. In comparison, they averaged 1,651 daily visits over the last fiscal year, and 2,005 in the fiscal year before the pandemic. Of Monday’s visits, 497 people were admitted to hospital – a sign of serious illness – compared to an average of 215 people per day over the last fiscal year.

Dr. Barclay called Monday a “really significant day.”

“When you have just a huge bolus of patients that show up all in one day and get admitted, it really creates havoc for a week or two weeks to come,” he said. “We are very, very crowded in our hospitals, so the focus is just to cope with the overwhelming demand.”

In a 24-hour period on Monday, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services (VFRS) responded to 365 incidents – about triple that of a typical weekday – of which 251 were medical calls. One call required firefighters to wait on scene with a patient for more than 11 hours for an ambulance to arrive.

VFRS Captain Jonathan Gormick said the extreme strain on the emergency response system has been “chaos.”

“Not only are we dealing with escalated call volumes and a decrease in ambulance units available, but, at the other end, the ones that are available are tied up at hospital for longer because the hospital is overloaded and they can’t triage and hand off patients and be free again,” he said. “It’s this chain reaction that eventually feeds back to the patient, unfortunately.”

Lisa Howard, a family physician in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, said she called 911 for a patient on Tuesday, only to get a busy signal. When she got through to dispatch 10 minutes later, she requested an ambulance for a patient whom she described as stable.

“They said, ‘It’s going to be a very, very, long wait,’” Dr. Howard recalled. “I said, ‘Longer than two hours?’ And they said, ‘Oh, much longer than that. People have been waiting for 10 hours.’”

The hottest temperatures have been in B.C., but the hot weather is expected to continue moving into the Prairies throughout the week. Alberta set 45 local temperature records on Monday, with temperatures in the mid-to-high 30s in many places. More records were expected to be broken on Tuesday. One of the hottest places in the province was Beaverlodge, in northern Alberta, which topped 40 degrees.

Alberta Health Services said there has been an increase in emergency calls related to the heat, with about six calls per day in Edmonton and 10 in Calgary.

The weather has also strained the province’s electrical grid, setting records for summertime usage. The Alberta Electric System Operator, which manages and regulates the province’s electricity system, declared an emergency alert on Tuesday as it asked people to try to conserve power.

Air conditioning is less common in many of the places dealing with the current heat wave.

In the Vancouver region, just 19 per cent of households had air conditioning in 2017 – the most recent data available, according to Statistics Canada, and well below the national rate of 60 per cent. The rates in Calgary and Edmonton were 24 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively.

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