An investigation into hundreds of deaths in British Columbia during a weather phenomenon known as a “heat dome” showed that nearly all the deaths occurred indoors.
Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe and a death-review panel released a report Tuesday, saying 98 per cent of the deaths happened inside. The report also revealed that 67 per cent of those who died were aged 70 or older and 56 per cent lived alone.
Extreme heat in 2021 claimed 619 lives across the province as temperatures broke records and surpassed 40 C for several days in a row in late June and early July. B.C. saw quadruple the number of deaths the region typically sees during that time.
“We were saddened to learn of the confirmation that 619 lives were lost in last year’s unprecedented heat dome,” Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said in response to the report. “Last year’s extreme heat emergency was a tragedy and our hearts are with the families and friends of those who continue to grieve the loss of loved ones.”
Outlining a list of recommendations in the report from a panel of subject-matter experts, chief medical officer with the B.C. Coroners Service Dr. Jatinder Baidwan said weather-related emergencies from climate change will continue to be an issue.
“We know that future heat events like last summer’s are certain to occur,” he said. “Together we can help ensure that we’re ready to respond and prevent any preventable loss of life.”
The panel’s recommendations included implementing a co-ordinated heat alert response system, identifying and supporting vulnerable populations, and creating long-term mitigation strategies.
Farnworth said officials still need to review the recommendations, but claimed “many of the recommendations in the report are complete or underway.”
Jay Ritchlind with the David Suzuki Foundation told CTV News, the report and all the recent weather events – extreme heat and rain – are evidence of why governments need to prepare for the future.
“Every municipal regional provincial and federal government has got to take this seriously and make the investments to be prepared,” he added.
WHO WERE THE VICTIMS?
The report revealed more information about who the victims of the 2021 heat dome were, suggesting which vulnerable populations need to be supported in the future, as the panel recommended.
“The people who died were people who, for a myriad of reasons, were overcome by the effects of extreme heat,” Baidwan said. “Most lacked access to cooler buildings or air-conditioned spaces. Many were older adults who had chronic health conditions. Many had communicated that they were feeling unwell and were having difficulty managing in the hot conditions that we faced.”
For example, the report said heat-related deaths were higher among people who were on a chronic-disease registry, like those with schizophrenia, substance-use disorder, epilepsy, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, asthma, mood and anxiety disorders and diabetes.
As well, the reports said more than 60 per cent of those who died had seen a medical professional within the month before they died.
More of those who died “lived in socially or materially deprived neighbourhoods” and most didn’t have adequate cooling systems in their homes.
Nearly three-quarters of the deaths happened in Fraser and Vancouver Coastal health authorities and most didn’t have adequate cooling systems like air conditioners or fans.
Rowan Burge with the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition said the report lacked lived experience from people who were most vulnerable.
“I do think the report needs to go much further in terms of recommendations particularly around helping disabled people, elderly folks and low-income people in our neighbourhoods,” Burge told CTV News
“Extreme heat is a public health issue and given the growing impacts of climate change we need to be prepared to expect more extreme heat in the years to come,” Health Minister Adrian Dix said in a news conference Tuesday.
The panel’s report also suggested a slow response from agencies tasked with notifying the public about the extreme heat, saying there was “a lag between the heat alerts issued by Environment and Climate Change Canada” and how public agencies and individuals responded.
“Extreme heat emergency alerts must be paired with clear protocols to ensure no time is lost in responding to a heat emergency,” Baidwan said. “The protocols must recognize the seriousness of the emergency and the potential for a mass-casualty event.”
Emergency crews were also impacted, with 911 callers facing significant delays in some cases.
According to the report, 29 per cent of 911 calls took more than the service-level target of five seconds to be answered between June 26 and June 30. On June 29, 52 per cent of the calls took more than five seconds to answer.
For some, it was even worse. The report said in 17 instances, 911 callers “were placed on hold for an extended period of time” and in six cases, “callers were told there was no ambulance available at the time of their call.”
That in turn, said the report, led people to not recognize the seriousness of the situation.
“How many of us. hand on heart, actually took the time to knock on someone’s door and ask if them if they’re OK? How many of us actually realized there was actually a severe heat event going on?” asked Dr. Baidwan.
He went on to say the failure was not of public health, but of the way we live, adding most buildings in B.C. are designed to keep heat in, not out.
CO-ORDINATED HEAT ALERTS
One of the panel’s recommendations is to task the province with adopting a heat alert and response system, or HARS, through a pilot project by the end of the month. Part of that includes categorizing extreme weather events as either a “heat warning” or an “extreme heat emergency.”
On Monday, the province expanded its Alert Ready system, which sends notifications to cellphones, to include both the heat warnings and extreme heat emergencies.
The criteria for the first alert is when there are two or more consecutive days in which the maximum daytime temperature is above the normal threshold.
The province said the alert for a heat warning would go out when there’s a moderate increase in health risk.
It expects this type of alert may go out up to three times a summer.
A second extreme heat emergency may be declared when the risk is high to the public, and the max daytime temperatures are above the threshold for three days or more.
The government anticipates this type of alert may occur twice in a decade.
With files from CTV News Vancouver’s Regan Hasegawa, Bhinder Sajan and Penny Daflos