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Opinion: Better planning needed to prevent B.C. heat-related deaths

Governments on all levels must do more
GettyImages heat wave

Our summer is drawing to a close, which means it is time to prepare for the next one.

And by that, I mean governments at all levels must assume that next summer will see significant heat levels and wildfire activity.

Premier John Horgan has already announced his government will be more proactive before next year’s wildfire season arrives. Presumably that will mean more prescribed burns and other steps that will remove as much fuel as possible from forest floors.

Last week, municipal officials and health officers were at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention on a panel addressing some of the lessons learned from this summer’s unprecedented “heat dome” weather event.

Even though Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe’s office has yet to release its investigative report on the more than 800 deaths attributed to the heat, the panel provided some fascinating information.

For example, Dr. Sarah Henderson of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control provided statistics that showed the highest death rate occurred among people living alone and aged 50-75.  A disproportionately high number resided in New Westminster, Burnaby or Vancouver.

The mortality rate in the Fraser health region was 150% higher than normal, while the rate on Vancouver Island and in the Interior and the North was 40 to 65% higher than normal.

No children died from the heat and fewer elderly people died than many had assumed. The number of deaths amongst those aged 75 and over was 100% higher than normal, but the mortality rate amongst those aged 50 to 75 was 105 to 115% higher.

By far the greatest number of deaths occurred in homes. The number of people who died at home was 205% higher than normal, while deaths in hospitals were just 35% higher than usual and in long-term care, home deaths were 30% higher.

The widespread lack of air conditioning and older apartment dwellings contributed to the high number of fatalities. In addition, the fact those temperatures did not drop at night – particularly on June 28, the peak of the heat dome – left many people vulnerable.

Two municipal officials on the panel – New Westminster Coun. Patrick Johnstone and Ashcroft Mayor Barbara Roden – said planning must be done ahead of next summer in case we experience more intense heat.

The climate change crisis has turned what had been considered a 1-in-1000 year event to something that will likely occur, at various high temperature levels, much more regularly.

They suggested creating more green space, keeping cooling centers open 24 hours a day and improving ways of checking on people in their homes, particularly people who live alone.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, who was also on the panel, pointed out British Columbians had never experienced such high and sustained levels of heat, and that contributed to some of the communications challenges that emerged.

We have had deadly heat waves in the past. The previous record was in 2009 when about 110 people in the Lower Mainland died from heat-attributable causes. The temperatures in this summer’s heat dome were at least five degrees higher than ever experienced before.

Wildfires, intense heat and smoky skies. Welcome to what could be the new normal for B.C., and that means we need planning like never before.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.