June heat dome was deadliest weather event in Canadian history

By Shannon Waters September 16, 2021

The June heat dome that drove temperatures across B.C. to record-breaking highs was the deadliest weather-related event in Canadian history — roughly three times as deadly as the 2010 heat wave that hit Montreal, causing 280 excess deaths.

That’s according to Dr. Sarah Henderson, scientific director of environmental health for the BC Centre for Disease Control, who detailed the impact of the weather event to attendees at the Union of BC Municipalities Convention yesterday alongside Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“We definitely saw the impact concentrated in the Lower Mainland — in the New Westminster, Burnaby and Vancouver regions,” Dr. Henderson said. “Deaths occurred in all ages but they mostly occurred in older adults aged 50 years and older.” She specified that no children died during the heatwave.

CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe said early indications of the intense heat headed toward the province were “almost hard to believe.”

“What we were seeing a week out in advance were projected temperatures that were so far above seasonal, so far above any records that we had ever seen that it was almost hard to put into context,” Wagstaffe said. “But as we got closer, and we saw the confidence in those models come together, we realized that this was going to play out.”

The heat dome’s impact on emergency responders — who were flooded with calls for assistance for two straight days — was “harrowing,” according to New Westminster city councillor Patrick Johnstone. He told attendees that “literally dozens” of people in his New Westminster neighbourhood died during the heat dome.

“I need to talk about the failures of that week and I don’t want to talk about them in the lens of casting blame — I want to acknowledge that these failures happened,” he said. “Beyond failing our community, we failed our first responders. They were already on edge after a year of Covid and an ongoing public health crisis related to the poisoned drug supply.”

The councillor suggested B.C. needs “to have a conversation” about what first responders experienced and how to address ongoing challenges in emergency health services.

Communication challenges and long-term planning
In July, Premier John Horgan admitted the heat dome’s intensity took provincial officials by surprise, just as it did many British Columbians who did not necessarily understand the dangers of prolonged high temperatures.

Most of B.C.’s population is not used to that type of intense heat and didn’t have access to air conditioning like residents of other provinces do, Dr. Henry said. “It’s not generally been the thing that we need to worry about most summers.”

Johnstone said local officials struggled to communicate the seriousness of the situation to residents.

“We were really challenged with how to address the outreach and to communicate to residents and tell them how would you get them out of the 37-degree apartment and into a cooling centre,” he said. “How do we get that information to the elderly people who live in those apartments or [in] the dozens of languages, spoken about in a way that people understand?”

Ashcroft Mayor Barbara Roden offered some advice based on her experience leading a community where temperatures regularly climb into the high 30s during the summer.

“First, the time to start planning for a heatwave is not when you hear from Environment Canada that one is coming in a week,” she said. “The time to start planning is now — in the wintertime, early spring at the latest, because if you wait until you’re a week out, you have waited too long.”

Partnering with community organizations to open cooling centres in large spaces and deploying simple visual aids — such as signs or posters — to educate people about heat risks can go a long way, Roden said, as can outreach on social media.

Johnstone emphasized the need for officials to take a long view on dealing with climate change and related weather impacts.

“I would assert that the deaths that we experienced during the heat dome are largely the result of decisions that were made 20 years ago,” he said. “Decisions not to act or to act timidly because of the uncertainty of climate change … Maybe it was a lack of political will, maybe we didn’t think we could afford to make the changes in time but because of that, now everybody here is a leader in an era of climate destruction.”

“We no longer have the luxury to think short term about our decisions,” he added.

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