Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
The heatwave that has blanketed Western Canada and the northwestern United States is now linked to dozens of deaths in British Columbia, where dangerously high temperatures have been setting records for days.
The extreme weather started late last week and has since pushed temperatures into the mid-40s in some places. In and around Vancouver, that has been especially dangerous in a region that is more known for temperate and rainy weather and where most homes don’t have air conditioning.
The BC Coroners Service says it received reports of 233 deaths between Friday and mid-afternoon on Monday, significantly higher than the average of 130 deaths that would normally be expected during over the span of four days. The agency says extreme heat is believed to be the reason for the increase. That could surpass the deadliest Canadian heatwave in recent memory in 2018, when up to 89 people in Quebec and three in Ontario died during a week of extreme heat that also stretched into the Maritimes.
Vancouver Police Sergeant Steve Addison said it has resulted in “unprecedented challenges,” and that the department has redeployed members from other sections, such as investigations, and is calling officers at home to deal with the backlog.
Emergency officials said most of the deaths were seniors, though few details have been released about what happened or what circumstances led to the deaths.
The heatwave has overwhelmed emergency services in the region, with many calls to 911 waiting hours for paramedics. Visits to local hospitals surged as health officials warned people to take precautions and as local governments opened cooling centres to offer a reprieve. Schools boards throughout the Lower Mainland cancelled in-person classes and some businesses had closed their doors.
Scott Lear, who studies population health at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, said elderly people and those with underlying health conditions are at a higher risk, and social factors such as income and housing also play a significant role. For example, lower-income people, whose homes are less likely to have air conditioning or who work front-line jobs where they can’t easily escape the heat, are more at risk.
In the Vancouver region, just 19 per cent of households had air conditioning in 2017, the most recent data available, according to Statistics Canada – well below the national rate of 60 per cent. The rates in Calgary and Edmonton were 24 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively.
Dr. Lear said the timing of the heatwave and the fact that temperatures have stayed high overnight have made the weather particularly dangerous.
Just a few weeks ago, it was chilly and rainy in the Vancouver region and people were making their usual complaints about “Juneuary.” The sudden switch to extreme heat didn’t allow people’s bodies to adjust, meaning things designed to cool down such as sweating aren’t as effective. And with temperatures not dropping significantly overnight, people aren’t given a reprieve they would need to recover between blasts of heat during the day.
“Thinking of being exposed to this heat as being active all the time, it’s an added stress that your body needs to deal with,” he said.
The heatwave has broken dozens of records in Alberta, with places like Grande Prairie and Beaverlodge in the province’s north topping 40 degrees. The worst is still to come, with the highest temperatures forecast to hit Wednesday and Thursday as the extreme weather moves east into the Prairies.
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.
Hotels in Vancouver have been filling up with people seeking a reprieve from houses and apartments without air conditioning. People in Calgary and Edmonton were also posting on social media about booking rooms for themselves.
Cheryl Peters, a researcher who studies occupational and environmental hazards, including extreme heat, checked into a hotel in Vancouver on Sunday, when the temperature reached 31.
When she went to check in, the hotel was crowded with others who had the same idea. She waited in the lobby for five hours before she got her room.
“My home office setup is in the west-facing part of our house, so it just gets the baking sun all afternoon,” she said.
“Last week was a little bit much and then when we started to see that it might hit 40 yesterday, which it did, we just thought, ‘There’s no way [we can remain here].’”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.