June heat wave was deadliest weather event in Canadian history, experts say

After a record-breaking heat wave this summer, provincial health leaders recognize that more needs to be done to prepare for more extreme weather to come.

According to Sarah Henderson, Scientific Director of the BC Center for Disease Control, the June thermal dome was “the deadliest weather event in Canadian history.”

“It’s called a ‘one in a thousand’ event. But of course it has happened now. And it forces us to develop and increase our collective resilience,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix. in a panel discussion at the Union of BC Municipalities virtual convention in September.

Between June 25 and July 1, temperatures rose to over 40 ° C in many parts of the province, which the BC Coroners Service said directly caused the deaths of 570 people.

Many people waited hours for ambulances as paramedics were pushed to the limit.

“It’s a very stark reminder that climate change is real and that we need to act together,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer, at the event.

The largest increases in heat wave deaths have been seen in health authorities in the Fraser and Vancouver, particularly in New Westminster, Burnaby and Vancouver, mostly in private residences.

An analysis conducted by the province showed that more deaths occurred in areas with more low-income residents, a high number of residents living alone and less green space. The elderly accounted for the majority of heat-related deaths.

Dix said that while great efforts had been made to support long-term care homes, create temporary cooling centers and provide consistent health information, it was not enough.

“We needed a full response and I believe we had it, but in some ways it still wasn’t effective,” Dix said.

Faced with the shortage of ambulances, firefighters resorted to accompanying sick but stable patients by taxi to hospital, said New Westminster councilor Patrick Johnstone, who was also on the panel.

The province is funding 85 new full-time paramedic positions and 20 full-time dispatchers, setting up 22 new ambulances, and converting 22 rural ambulance stations to provide 24/7 service. However, other solutions are still needed, Dix said.

Man-made climate change to blame

According to the first analyzes of climate groups, the thermal dome would have been impossible without anthropogenic climate change or human-caused climate change.

“The next thousand-year event is highly unlikely to happen in 1,000 years,” said Henderson, citing the wildfire season of 2017, followed by more extreme wildfires in 2018.

The province’s last deadly heat wave in 2009 caused an estimated 110 deaths.

“It could happen again next summer… the only way to prepare effectively is to convince yourself that it could.”

Meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe, who was also on the panel, said it could become “a five to ten year event by 2050” under a 2 ° C rise in global temperatures. Wagstaffe is also a science reporter for CBC.

“Climate change is already changing the baseline,” she said.