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Sudden deaths during B.C. heat wave climb past 800

BC Coroners Service is now reporting 610 more sudden deaths across British Columbia during the heat wave when compared to the five-year average over the same seven-day period
BC Ambulance
A BC Ambulance crew passes in front of a hospital emergency department

The number of sudden deaths reported during a record-breaking heat wave in B.C. two weeks ago has climbed to 808.

That’s 610 more sudden deaths across British Columbia when compared to the five-year average over the same seven-day period, according to updated preliminary data from the BC Coroners Service.

Between June 25 and July 1, large swathes of B.C. were blanketed in a heat dome, pushing ambulance wait times up to 11 hours and priming forests and grasslands for wildfires that have recently gotten so out of control, that on on Friday, the BC Wildfire Service said it doesn't have the resources to provide firefighters and aircraft to each new fire.

None of the deaths have been confirmed as heat-related and investigators are still working to establish how and why so many more people died over last week than in previous years, noted the BC Coroners Service.

Death by heat is notoriously hard to track as rising temperatures can trigger chronic illnesses; or, they get recorded as heart or kidney failure.

However, last week, B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said she suspects at least a portion of the spike in deaths to be heat related; many of those who past away last week were found alone in poorly ventilated apartments.

“This, frankly, took many of us off guard,” said Lapointe Wednesday. “I think it’s very likely many of us misunderstood the extreme risk.” 

LOWER MAINLAND HIT HARDEST

The Fraser Health region, which stretches from Boston Bar to Burnaby, saw one of the biggest spikes in sudden deaths: 353 sudden deaths were reported during the heat wave. That’s seven times the previous five-year average of 50 deaths over that same week.

Vancouver Coastal Health saw sudden deaths spike to 202, nearly four-and-a-half times the previous five-year average. Meanwhile, sudden deaths more than tripled in Interior Health and more than doubled in the Island Health Authority.

Northern Health saw a negligible increase in sudden deaths. 

‘SHOULD HAVE BEEN PLANNING’

An international body of climate scientists has since found the heat wave was 150-times more likely due to climate change, and that by 2040, such temperatures would be common every five to 10 years. 

On Thursday, the province vowed to overhaul BC Ambulance after a number of paramedics described desperate working conditions as the dead were reportedly being stored in waiting areas and hallways because people were dying and there was nowhere to put them.

Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia, previously told Glacier Media pressure has been building on ambulance crews for months. The heat wave, he says, only revealed how unprepared emergency services are for a crisis situation.

It’s a crisis that Clifford says could have been mitigated had BCEHS planned for what climate scientists have been saying all along — that hotter, drier summers would become the new normal. 

“We know we’re going to face floods, fires,” he says. “We should have been planning for it a long time ago. It’s not unpredictable.”

Stefan Labbé is a solutions journalist. That means he covers how people are responding to problems linked to climate change — from housing to energy and everything in between. Have a story idea? Get in touch. Email slabbe@glaciermedia.ca.