A cooling centre open during the heat dome in Vancouver. Shutterstock

63 lives were lost in Burnaby during heat dome

One of the first inklings that BC was seeing a huge escalation in deaths during the heat dome came from a press release sent out by Burnaby RCMP on the morning of June 29.

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November 2, 2021 | 5:00 am

More than 10% of the people who died during this summer’s heat dome and other days of extreme heat were located in Burnaby, according to new preliminary data from the BC Coroners Service.

The service has so far ascertained at least 595 people died as a result of heat in the province this year. Of those deaths, 526 occurred between June 25 and July 1, and the vast majority of those deaths were during the deadly heat dome in the last days of June—now the deadliest weather event ever recorded in Canada.

63 people died in Burnaby, the coroners service says.

One of the first inklings that BC was seeing a huge escalation in deaths came from a press release sent out by Burnaby RCMP on the morning of June 29.

“Burnaby RCMP is urging people to check on loved ones and neighbours as the heatwave bringing record-breaking temperatures continues in Metro Vancouver,” Cpl Michael Kalanj wrote.

“In a 24 hour period since Monday (June 28), Burnaby RCMP has responded to more than 25 sudden death calls. Although still under investigation, heat is believed to be a contributing factor in the majority of the deaths. Many of the deceased have been seniors.”

Other police forces and emergency responders quickly confirmed that they too had seen sudden death calls far outside the realm of what they usually respond to. In Vancouver, for instance, Sgt Steve Addison told reporters on June 29 that the Vancouver Police Department normally sees three or four sudden death calls per day.

“I’ve been a police officer for 15 years and I’ve never experienced the volume of sudden deaths that have come in in such a short period of time,” said Addison. “This has been an extreme sudden spike in sudden deaths throughout the city, all over the city.”

Homes not built for heat

The BC Coroners Service says 96% of the heat-related deaths in BC occurred in private residences.

A 2012 study that looked at shifts in mortality rates during heat waves in Vancouver between 2001 and 2009 also found that at-home deaths increased during the hottest months of summer, especially for people aged 65-74.

The study noted similarities between those events and the infamous 2003 European heat wave that killed thousands—“for which risk factors for at-home death included living alone, chronic diseases, lack of mobility, sleeping on the top floor, limited thermal insulation, and higher temperatures around the decedent’s residence.”

The study found using residential cooling was found to be protective.

But, of course, air conditioning has never been a common amenity in Lower Mainland residences.

A 2018 series by The Guardian entitled Sweltering Cities said in Vancouver, “Residents have no real need of air conditioning. In winter they’ll need heat though. In the hottest month the daily average is 22.2C, and average highs are 18C.”

At times, temperatures during the heat dome exceeded 40C in the Lower Mainland—double the norm.

The Guardian’s piece notes that temperatures are steadily creeping upwards in our corner of the planet—perhaps making what was once a luxury a necessary part of homes here.

“Our cities, our forests, our marine life are just not accustomed to this type of heat,” UBC geography professor Dr Simon Donner told the Beacon earlier this year.

“Everything from people not having adequate cooling in their homes, which is certainly true here in Vancouver, to how we design where we live, how close we live to forests, and now the threats of forest fires are so much higher. We set up the way we live in Canada for the Canada that used to be.”

‘A complete failure’ of emergency response

The crisis at the end of June was compounded by lengthy delays at BC Emergency Health Services, with patients having to wait hours in some cases for an ambulance to arrive.

BC EHS has come under intense and sustained criticism for its response to the heat dome, and for failing to activate its emergency operations centre until June 29, when the peak of the unprecedented temperatures had already passed.

For comparison, Burnaby RCMP activated its emergency heat response plan on June 25.

And as we’ve reported previously, there were also serious issues with E-Comm, which is BC’s largest dispatch centre for 911 calls.

“Our 911 system completely failed us during this time. It was another lesson that, during times of big emergencies, we’re going to have to learn to stand on our own for six, seven days. We really need to prepare for that,” Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley said at a council meeting in September.

City councillors at that meeting called the heat dome a “wake-up call”—noting that the heating planet means heat waves like this one will become more frequent in the future.

Death review panel findings

The BC Coroners Service plans to complete individual investigations into each of the 595 heat-related deaths of the summer by early 2022, and will release the findings of a death review panel in the spring.

The panel will make recommendations for how to avoid similar deaths in the future.

“While we expect the findings of the death review will significantly contribute to efforts to increase public safety, we must take steps to prepare for future extreme weather events now,” chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said Monday.

“The effects of climate change are both real and unpredictable. Having a plan to regularly check in with loved ones who live alone, being aware of cooler and air-conditioned areas in your neighbourhood, and heeding early warnings about extreme weather are simple steps that will help ensure we are all properly prepared and safe.”

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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