Extreme heat killed 619 people at the start of last summer in British Columbia, according to the official and final toll from the province’s Coroners Service. That’s equal to more than three years of deaths from car accidents in B.C. It’s a remarkably high number. It’s also far higher than it should have been.
The Coroners Service last week issued a list of recommendations, from the need for alerts and mitigation strategies to support for vulnerable people at the most risk. The province’s Centre for Disease Control called the heat dome the deadliest weather event in the country’s history, and the lessons apply across Canada.
A heat dome itself is a normal weather phenomenon. Picture the lid of a pot in the sky, trapping warm air. But at extremes, heat domes can be disastrous and deadly. And the best evidence suggests such dangerous episodes will become more frequent and more severe as the planet’s climate heats up, with more northerly regions – hello, Canada – warming at a faster rate.
In April, the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo detailed the risks and concluded: “Extreme heat is an urgent national issue.” The report pointed to three red zones: B.C. valleys between the Pacific and the Rocky Mountains, Prairie communities along the United States border, and southern Ontario and Quebec.
The report forecasts that maximum temperatures will jump several degrees, the length of the average heat wave will grow by a third or more, and the number of very hot days of 30 degrees and higher will surge. Toronto, for example, currently averages about 10 days a year of 30 degrees and up. That could rise to almost 40 days by the 2050s.
Despite this, the main message from both the University of Waterloo and the BC Coroners Service is one of resilience. Most heat deaths are preventable.
The B.C. coroners’ report confirms what was widely known: Like COVID-19, the heat dome mostly killed the vulnerable. Nine out of 10 people who died were over the age of 60. Many had underlying health problems; three out of five had visited a health care provider 10 times or more in the previous year. More than half lived alone. Most of the dead didn’t have air conditioning – its absence is typical in normally mild B.C. – and many were lower-income.
More than one-third of the deaths – 234 – came on a single day, June 29, when emergency services buckled and 911 struggled to handle more than 10,000 calls. B.C. simply was not ready.
Death by heat is not like a car accident: It’s not instant; it’s insidious. For example, dehydration can lead to kidney failure, but dehydration is a creeping condition. A person may not realize they are in danger. This is an example of why better public warnings – “a co-ordinated provincial heat alert and response system” – was the No. 1 recommendation from the Coroners Service.
B.C.’s NDP government was roundly criticized last year for its refusal to use the Alert Ready system for fires, floods or heat. This spring, it reversed course, and last Monday, in advance of the coroners’ findings, it announced a new heat alert and response system.
Equally important is the coroners’ second recommendation: to identify and support people “most at risk of dying” during heat extremes. This preparation is necessary, at the individual and community level. Think of cooling centres. They’re an important reprieve – but they have to be accessible, and people with mobility problems may need help getting to them.
The list of how cities can adapt to heat is long. The University of Waterloo tallied 35 items. It includes everything from building retrofits and more trees (canopies lower the temperature in cities but are often sparse in poorer neighbourhoods) to heat maps. The latter are like flood maps but for heat, identifying which areas face the most trouble.
One new idea is to put a specific person in charge. They can make connections others might miss. Florida’s Miami-Dade County now has a chief heat officer. She has talked about integrating the challenge of heat “into all sorts of thinking on dealing with climate change and infrastructure.”
Canada imagines itself as a cold country, but summers get hot – and we know they will get hotter.
But Canadians dying because of the heat? That does not have to be inevitable.
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