Almost a year after a deadly heat wave killed nearly 600 people in British Columbia, the provincial government has unveiled a new plan to prepare and warn of incoming extreme heat.
Under a new BC Heat Alert and Response System (HARS), a provincial group of experts will assess weather projections across multiple regions of the province, issuing warnings through a two-tiered heat alert system.
“After last year's event, it's clear we needed to take a hard look at our response to extreme heat events and to take steps to ensure we are prepared for more of these events in the future,” said Minister of Emergency Preparedness Mike Farnworth Monday.
The new system starts with a heat warning that will indicate temperatures are rising and are expected to exceed regional thresholds for minimum daytime and nighttime temperatures.
Across B.C., the regional temperature thresholds are:
- Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island: daytime high of 29 C, nighttime low of 16 C
- Fraser Valley: daytime high of 33 C, nighttime low of 17 C
- Southeast (including the southern Okanagan): daytime high of 35 C, nighttime low of 18 C
- Northeast: daytime high of 29 C, nighttime low of 14 C
- Northwest: daytime high of 28 C, nighttime low of 13
Once those temperature thresholds are met and are expected to increase over a three-day period, a newly formed BC Heat Committee will make the call to send out an emergency broadcast alert through the national text alert readiness system, radio and television. That's different from flood or wildfire warnings, which are currently issued at the municipal or regional level.
Heat warnings are expected to occur up to three times every summer, whereas extreme heat emergencies are projected to hit the province once or twice a decade.
“This is not the silver bullet by itself,” said Farnworth, noting the news media and door-to-door warnings would help bolster the warning system.
But just how that plays out on the ground has experts like Ryan Reynolds wary of fully endorsing the province’s latest measures.
A researcher and technologist pioneering disaster preparedness apps at the University of British Columbia, Reynolds says too much reliance on technology can quickly exclude large portions of the population.
“It’s great for the 30- to 40-year-olds who have their phone in their pocket. But not necessarily for people like my parents,” he said of the text alert system. “We need other things filling the gaps.”
Reynolds said the province’s move to offer guidance on how to plan in advance is a big and important step forward, but much will hinge on how consistent those messages are from one municipality to the next.
“They’re trying to do as many of the things as they possibly can. The problem with that is smaller things can slip through the cracks,” he said. “The proof is going to be seeing this in play.”
No commitments on direct payments for air conditioners
The record heat wave that hit B.C. last year led to the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada at just shy of 50 C. That was in Lytton, B.C., where a day later a wildfire swept through the town, decimating its core and driving hundreds into homelessness.
But a wider disaster played out quietly in scores of deaths that lacked the dramatic footage that come with a flood or fire.
Often described as a “silent killer,” the extreme heat was most deadly to seniors with preexisting conditions. Many died alone. Many faced poverty, didn’t speak English as their first language, or lived in neighbourhoods where limited green spaces meant a “heat island” effect took hold, driving urban temperatures even higher.
Since last year’s heat dome, Joanna Eyquem, managing director of Climate Resilient Infrastructure at the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, says she sees a growing appreciation that extreme heat is a serious issue that needs to translate on the ground.
“We're talking about people's lives,” said Eyquem
Following the heat wave, a global collaboration of scientists found its intensity and duration would have been virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.
Eyquem recently carried out modelling that shows between 2051 and 2080, Kelowna will become among the top 10 “hottest” metropolitan areas in Canada. Smaller Interior communities like Kamloops, Penticton, Creston and Vernon are also expected to reach similar temperatures.
In a comprehensive report meant to provide guidance to the 17 million Canadians expected to suffer from extreme heat in the coming decades, Eyquem lays out a number of simple measures governments, homeowners, landlords and tenants can take to protect their homes.
“There are simple things, even just sticking up some window films to kind of cut the sun coming through your windows,” she said.
“That's very affordable. So I don't know why we're not doing that.”
There are some signs more money is coming.
The province’s latest plan is backed by a previously announced $189-million funding package under the Community Emergency Preparedness Fund. It’s meant to help municipalities map neighbourhoods most vulnerable to extreme heat and plan a path to help minimize heat illness and death. It's not clear how that money will support the gaps Eyquem has identified.
The BC Coroners Service is expected to come out with a death review panel report on last year's heat wave June 7.
But when asked if the province would follow through should the coroners service recommend direct funding to help vulnerable people access air conditioning units, Farnworth avoided the question, instead saying the government has been focused on warning people extreme heat is coming.
Emergency services to get boost, says province
When it comes to emergency services, Minister of Health Adrian Dix said B.C.'s ambulance service will work under a new Clinical Safety Plan to increase capacity and move paramedic crews around the province to bolster communities hit especially hard by extreme heat.
The plan also creates systems to boost staffing at BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) as call volumes go up and reduce turnaround time at hospitals, where paramedics recalled bodies piling up in hallways.
During the heat wave in June 2021, Vancouver Fire Rescue Services said crews waited up to 11 hours to hand off a patient to an ambulance crew.
Firefighters are not permitted to transport patients to hospital. But in places like New Westminster, desperate firefighters reverted to calling a taxi and sending one of their members with the patient so the crew could move on to the next site, according to New Westminster city councillor Patrick Johnstone.
“This was traumatic for our fire crews,” he said.
Johnstone says the city has moved to adjust many of its policies in the last year, including one to keep its cooling stations open 24 hours a day when necessary.
But convincing people to go is another matter.
One of the neighbourhoods hit hardest in his community, the Brow of the Hill, is one dominated by aging but affordable rentals, where residents often speak one of the over 100 mother tongues spoken across New Westminster and Burnaby.
Many of the residents there have precarious immigration status or come from countries facing civil strife or corrupt governments.
“We don't turn people away from city services for immigration status, but that doesn't do much for the trust, right?” said Johnstone.
“How do you get somebody like, even in a firefighter uniform knocking on someone's door and telling them, ‘You have to come with us?’ That's a difficult conversation to have. For people who are undocumented, or people who are feeling precarious, or have a bad history with government interventions, I mean… A lot of refugees come to Canada because they're escaping a government that they don't trust. And that is a barrier to people seeking help from us.”
The other side to warnings is getting prepared before it’s too late. To that end, the province has also developed a new Extreme Heat Preparedness Guide, available in French, Punjabi, traditional and simplified Chinese. Among other advice, it’s meant to help people identify cool zones in and around their homes and help them access community cooling stations before temperatures rise.
But it’s not just seniors or people at home who are vulnerable to the heat.
Outdoor workers faced surge in heat claims
Last year, B.C.’s occupational health and safety agency accepted 115 claims from workers who suffered heat injuries while on the job, a 250 per cent spike compared to the previous nine-year average.
The data, provided to Glacier Media from WorkSafeBC, represents a heavy toll on workers who endured scorching temperatures last year — particularly, during June's record heat dome.
Just who those workers are is not as clear but evidence from south of the border offers some hints at who might be most vulnerable at work.
A research professor at Las Vegas’s Desert Research Center, Eric Bandala has spent his career developing a number of technologies to adapt to climate change, including devices that can recycle grey water to maintain green spaces in a water-starved city like Las Vegas.
Last month, he published research looking into the effect of extreme heat on non-fatal illnesses and injuries among outside workers in Nevada, California and Arizona.
In Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles — three of the hottest cities in the U.S. — Bandala found the number of non-fatal heat-related injuries and illnesses climbed steadily in recent years. The data, compiled from the Bureau of Work Statistics, showed deaths in Las Vegas rose fivefold in the decade ending in 2017. And between 2011 and 2018, worker injuries and illnesses due to extreme heat climbed steadily to over 10 per 100,000 people, above the national average.
“It seems like the number of people being affected is increasing as time goes by,” he said.
Who fell ill to heat at work also changed over that period.
In 2011, about one in four workers was a woman. By 2018, that had increased by more than threefold. Bandala says that’s a concern because women are more susceptible to losing electrolytes when exposed to extreme heat.
Bandala and his colleagues also found extreme heat disproportionately affects Latino and African American outdoor workers — groups that he says are more likely to take jobs gardening, doing street repair work or construction.
At the same time, Bandala says a lot of cases go unreported, at times because many of the undocumented Latino workers fear coming into contact with authorities and getting deported.
“They are not authorized to work in the U.S. so they keep it to themselves,” he said.
The length of time a person worked in an outside job also affected how likely they were to fall ill due to extreme heat. Bandala suspects that’s because people working outside for longer lower their guard and don’t take precautions to protect themselves.
Another surprising discovery, workers who suffered heat illness were found to be out of work for up to 30 days after reporting a case, something Bandala said could hit family incomes hard.
“You don't need to be in the south to be at risk of that,” he said, pointing to cities like Vancouver and San Diego, which in the past, rarely had to consider the effects of heat waves.
“This is starting to happen everywhere.”
But such measures will have little effect, he says, if people don’t understand the personal risks they run by exposing themselves to heat.
His group has found many hikers ignore warnings and fail to bring adequate water or protective clothing. Another extremely vulnerable group are people who use illicit drugs. Of the 100 deaths due to heat he tracked around Las Vegas’s Clark Country in 2021, many were found in people using methamphetamines.
Much of that risk can be avoided with enough education and warning in people's first language — something Reynolds says needs to be expanded as the B.C. government's plan evolves.
But warning people also relies on good science underpinning predictive weather models. Without that, it's hard to see what's coming.
Predicting extreme heat a work in progress
With tsunamis, flooding and to a lesser degree earthquakes, governments and experts generally have a good understanding what areas will be impacted the most.
“We have some idea of where that's going to hit,” said Reynolds.
With extreme heat, however, modellers and weather stations are forced to constantly update their predictions as weather conditions shift.
At Environment Canada’s Meteorological Centre, researcher Hai Lin is trying to buy communities more time.
Lin and a team help improve models for short- and medium-range forecasts.
“Close to about one week, we are quite accurate,” he said. “We see it coming. But the magnitude, we cannot accurately predict it.”
Longer than two weeks and he says things get murky on all fronts.
In research published this spring, Lin and a colleagues found that in the lead up to the 2021 heat wave, some of the models failed to account for moisture brought in from tropical latitiudes on an atmospheric river. That along with vast swings in precipitation on the other side of the Pacific during the Asian monsoon helped set the stage for a regional greenhouse effect known by most now as a “heat dome.”
Now he’s working with colleagues across the world to fix those gaps and give authorities even more warning the next time deadly heat arrives in B.C.
“We are getting there, but we’re not there yet,” he said.
Lin is worried the biggest challenge will not be the technology and science behind it, but convincing the public that the weather forecasts undergirding government warnings can be trusted.
“There’s hope,” he said. “But we need to build it right.”