British Columbia has more ground to cover to protect people and communities from heat emergencies, even though the province would be better prepared now to withstand the heat dome that resulted in more than 600 deaths last summer, says the chief medical officer at BC’s Coroners Service.
With the first anniversary of last year’s devastating heat dome approaching, a death panel report released Tuesday provides a roadmap for the province and calls for a coordinated heat alert system in B.C. to prevent deaths in future heat emergencies, said Dr. Jatinder Baidwan at a news conference.
“You are never going to live in a society where you eliminate all risk,” he said. “But we have to do our utmost to ensure that we absolutely, actively eliminate as much risk as we can understand.”
Record temperatures across B.C. surpassed 40°C for days during last summer’s heat dome, resulting in 619 heat-related deaths, most of them elderly and vulnerable people living in buildings without air conditioning.
The panel report says 98% of those who died last summer were indoors and most victims “lived in socially or materially deprived neighbourhoods” compared with the general population.
“Coroner investigations found that those who died were predominantly older adults with chronic health conditions and relatively compromised overall health,” the report stated. “These conditions may have impacted their ability to seek assistance or cooler environments. The majority of those who died lacked access to cooling or ventilation, and were often living in areas of higher material and social deprivation.”
Those results had Baidwan calling for more attention to heat risk.
“Are we where we need to be? No,” he said. “Can we get better? Absolutely. I can honestly say we are in better shape today than we were at the time of the heat dome last year.”
The BC Coroners Service report comes a day after the provincial government announced a two-stage heat response system to help people and communities stay safe as temperatures rise and the threat of heat-related emergencies increases.
The recommendations from the report include ensuring vulnerable people are identified and supported during heat emergencies, implementing longer-term prevention and mitigation strategies, and introducing the heat alert and response system.
The report says 67% of the people who died last year were 70 years and older and 90% were over 60 years old.
Baidwan said the panel recommended that government, communities, and health agencies help people stay cool in their homes or get them to cooling facilities to escape the dangers of the heat.
“If we can’t get something to somebody, get them to a cooling centre,” he said. “Essentially, if you think about it, people dying from heat, it’s a failure of the way we live.”
Baidwan said communities should consider heat protection initiatives that range from building homes that stay cool in hot weather, to planting more trees to provide shade and leaving fewer open concrete areas to attract heat.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, who announced on Monday that B.C.’s heat response system will include alerts broadcast to mobile devices, scheduled a news conference to respond to the report.
The Opposition Liberals called on the New Democrat government to start working on the report’s recommendations.
“Today’s recommendations from the coroner must be implemented immediately to prevent such a heat dome tragedy from occurring again,” Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon said in a statement. “The coroner’s report shows government failed to adequately notify and inform British Columbians of the risks of the extreme heat which killed over 600 people in our province.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2022.