The heat dome B.C. experienced in late June was the deadliest weather event in Canadian history, and new numbers from the BC Coroners Service show just how high the death toll was.
Heat-related deaths killed nearly 600 British Columbians this summer, with most of the deaths occurring during an unprecedented heat wave that lasted from June 25 to July 1.
During the “heat dome,” temperatures rose as much as 12 C higher than normal in Vancouver. In the province's Interior, the village of Lytton broke Canadian heat records when a temperature of 49.6 C was recorded on June 29. The next day, a catastrophic wildfire destroyed the town.
During the week-long heat dome, temperatures did not cool off much at night, meaning there was little respite from the heat, especially for people living in sub-standard housing with no air conditioning.
It’s the kind of event scientists say will become more common because of climate change.
Metro Vancouver didn’t see the highest temperatures in the province, but the urban region experienced the most deaths: 52 per cent of the heat-related deaths occurred in the Fraser Health region, while 23 per cent happened in the area served by Vancouver Coastal Health.
By city, Vancouver had the highest number of deaths for the period between June 25 and July 1. There were 99 deaths in Vancouver, followed by Surrey at 67 deaths and Burnaby at 63.
A total of 393 people died in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health authorities during the heat dome period, compared to 64 deaths in Interior Health, 48 in Island Health and 21 in Northern Health.
Between June 18 to Aug. 12, a total of 595 British Columbians died of heat-related causes; 526 of those deaths occurred between June 25 and July 1, while 43 people died the week after the heat dome. The BC Coroners Service had previously reported that a total 569 people died of heat-related causes between June 20 and July 29.
The numbers far outstrip what U.S. West Coast cities experienced during the same heat wave, even though they also saw heat records smashed.
Temperatures rose as high as 46 C in Portland and as high as 41.6 C in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service, compared to Vancouver’s high of 33.8 C during the same period. Multnomah County — the county that includes Portland, Oregon — counted 62 deaths of heat-related causes out of a total of 96 deaths across Oregon. King County, which includes Seattle, has determined that 25 residents died of heat-related causes during the heat dome; across Washington state, 91 people died.
It’s not clear why so many more people died in British Columbia, but the heat dome did strain the emergency responder system to the breaking point. People waited on hold to speak to ambulance dispatchers, and firefighters and police found themselves stuck at calls for hours as they waited for paramedics to arrive, or — if the patient had not survived — for the coroner.
The B.C. government announced an overhaul of the BC Ambulance Service on July 14.
Dr. Jatinder Baidwan, the chief medical health officer for the BC Coroners Service, said coroners will be investigating each death, and will be able to release more data after those investigations are completed. The service also plans to hold a death review panel made up of experts who can make recommendations to governments and health authorities to prevent deaths from extreme heat in the future.
Baidwan said that as it became clear how relentlessly hot the weather was getting during the June heat dome, he sent a letter to doctors and nurses in the province, asking them to notify the coroner of all deaths that may be heat related. Baidwan said that may be one reason that B.C. has reported more deaths than Washington and Oregon.
Dr. Elise Jackson is an internal medicine resident who was working at St. Paul’s Hospital and Vancouver General Hospital during the heat dome. Working a night shift on June 27 at St. Paul’s, Jackson said she and colleagues noticed a dramatic increase in heat-related admissions. Many of the injuries were from severe dehydration, and some required care in the intensive care unit.
By July 1 and 2, when she switched to working at Vancouver General Hospital, there were so many patients that some were being treated in the emergency room for days. Staff created a dedicated unit to deal with the high number of heat-related injuries, Jackson said.
Many of the victims were elderly or were people with cognitive issues or physical disabilities, Jackson said. Many of the admissions to the ICU were for serious brain injuries caused by overheating and dehydration. Some of those brain injuries were severe and required patients to stay in hospital for weeks or months.
The coroner’s report shows that 91 per cent of the people who died of heat-related causes between June 25 and July 1 were aged 60 years or older.
It also showed that most people who did not survive the heat wave died at home: 96 per cent, or 506 of the deaths, happened inside a residence.
Baidwan said British Columbians don’t need to wait for the death panel review report to plan how they’ll react differently the next time summer temperatures soar.
“We need to be prepared for the next time around, and have those internal conversations in our families and our communities so we don’t react in the same deer-in-headlights way next time.”
In a statement, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe encouraged British Columbia residents to have a plan to regularly check with loved ones who live alone, be aware of the cooler or air-conditioned places in their neighbourhoods and pay attention to early warnings about extreme weather.
The BC Coroners Service expects to have completed investigations of each of the 595 heat-related deaths by early 2022. The agency will then hold a death review panel to create recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.
In a statement, chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said British Columbians can act now to prevent loved ones and neighbours from succumbing to extreme heat in future heat waves.
“The effects of climate change are both real and unpredictable,” said Lapointe. “Having a plan to regularly check in with loved ones who live alone, being aware of cooler and air-conditioned areas in your neighbourhood, and heeding early warnings about extreme weather are simple steps that will help ensure we are all properly prepared and safe.”
* Story updated on Nov. 1 at 9:48 a.m. and 2:04 p.m. to include additional information from the BC Coroners Service.