595 people were killed by heat in B.C. this summer, new figures from coroner show

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A woman hands out bottled water to residents in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver on June 28 during the 'heat dome' that led to record-breaking temperatures across B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
A woman hands out bottled water to residents in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver on June 28 during the 'heat dome' that led to record-breaking temperatures across B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Nearly 600 people died due to extreme temperatures in British Columbia over the summer, according to new data from the provincial coroners' service.

New figures released Monday said the deaths of 595 people between June 18 and Aug. 12 were related to the heat. The majority of those deaths — 526 — happened during the "heat dome" that created temperatures above 40 C from late June to early July.

The service said 231 people died in a single day on June 29 — nearly 10 people every hour.

The staggering tally comes as health-care advocates, first responders and politicians try to determine what kind of action — or inaction — might have contributed to the number of people who died as a result of the incessant heat.

"The impacts, as we see by today's report, were tragic, and the loss of life devastating," Health Minister Adrian Dix said during a news conference Monday. "It's vital that we learn from these events."

99% died at home or hotel

The data released Monday presents a clearer picture of the people who died and where they lived in B.C.

Nearly 70 per cent of those who died were over the age of 70. More than half lived in the Fraser Health Authority area, while roughly a quarter lived in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby saw the highest numbers of deaths by town, with 99, 67 and 63, respectively.

The mayor of Prince George, a city further north in B.C., said the news that 12 people died in his own community was a "complete shock." The city saw a higher numbers deaths per capita than more populated cities like Richmond or Nanaimo.

"For me, the underlying factor is, were these folks homeless? For people who are living on the street, it's the weather that impacts them the greatest. I would like to see the breakdown," said Lyn Hall.

Ninety-nine per cent of people died after overheating inside a home or hotel. The remainder died after being in the heat outside or in a public building, such as a business or community centre.

The percentage of men to women was similar, though slightly more women died. No children died.

'No longer a one-in-1,000-year event'

Early analysis by climate groups in July found the heat wave would have been "virtually impossible" without climate change.

Some groups said extreme events are intensifying and becoming more common as greenhouse emissions continue, making more extreme heat waves a likely part of B.C.'s future.

"It has now happened," Dix said Monday.

"It's no longer a one-in-1,000-year event — it's a one-in-one-year event, and we need to respond and become more resilient, not just as a health-system, but as a province."

In total, more than 800 sudden deaths were reported to the coroner between June 25 and July 1.

Monday's data confirms 526 of those deaths were a direct result of extreme temperatures during the heat dome. A report from Human Rights Watch last month found lack of government support left the elderly population and people living with disabilities at risk during the heat — and that a lack of a provincial heat response plan contributed to "unnecessary suffering and possibly deaths."

Report on every death expected in 2022

The coroner uses two criteria to classify a death as heat related, the statement explained: either the person's environment or body temperature is consistent with hyperthermia, or there is evidence to support that heat would have been a significant factor in their death, such as medical history.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said by identifying patterns and factors in each of the deaths, the province will be "in a better position to prevent future similar tragedies.''

She said everyone in B.C. must begin to prepare for future extreme weather events.

"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,'' Lapointe wrote.

The statement said all of the deaths are being investigated and reports on each fatality should be finished by early 2022.

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