B.C. in a better place to deal with extreme temperatures, say provincial heat watchers

Hot weather is coming to cities like Vancouver this weekend. Health officials say the province is better prepared to deal with potentially threatening heat than it was in 2021. (Justine Boulin/CBC - image credit)
Hot weather is coming to cities like Vancouver this weekend. Health officials say the province is better prepared to deal with potentially threatening heat than it was in 2021. (Justine Boulin/CBC - image credit)

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) said the province is in a better place to deal with extreme heat compared to the summer of 2021 when hundreds of people died in the heat dome weather event.

Officials with the BCCDC, Environment Canada and B.C.'s Emergency Management and Climate Readiness held a technical briefing Thursday morning to review a two-tier heat alert response system for extreme heat events.

It was put in place last summer in response to 2021's heat dome, which killed 619 British Columbians. It's considered the deadliest weather event on record in Canada, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

B.C.'s Heat Alert Response System (HARS) uses specific heat criteria to determine what type of alert needs to be issued to British Columbians so they can prepare for hot weather. The criteria take into account daytime and nighttime highs and lows and are specific to each region of the province.

Sarah Henderson, the scientific director of environmental health services with the BCCDC, who led the briefing, said the measure, along with others now in place, are positive lessons learned from the deadly heat dome.

"We are in a much better place than we were in the summer of 2021," she said.

Preparedness, readiness

Henderson and Armel Castellan, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, both want governments and citizens to use all the attention over this weekend's expected record-breaking heat wave as an opportunity to understand the heat warning system and learn to prepare for heat just as they do for other potential emergencies such as flooding, wildfires and earthquakes.

Castellan said this weekend's temperatures will be hot but not as dire as the heat dome in 2021 because the nights are still longer, providing longer cooling periods with less humidity.

Justine Boulin/CBC
Justine Boulin/CBC

'It does not have the potential to reach the same extremes we saw in June 2021 when we saw 25 degrees above seasonal temperatures," he said.

Henderson said it still will be hot enough to cause heat stroke and other overheating problems that could become medical emergencies for vulnerable people, especially if indoor temperatures remain high into the evening and overnight.

"If you find you are too warm, [take] immediate action to cool down."

Extreme heat preparedness guide

Besides the heat warning system B.C. has developed, it also now has in place, through the BCCDC, an extreme heat preparedness guide.

The 16-page booklet explains the dangers of heat, how and why it's expected but also tips to protect against it, such as finding places to keep cool and other at-home solutions.

The guide also discusses who is most at risk during a heat event, such as older people, people with mental illness or limited mobility.

Henderson would like people to read the guide and consider one of its important emergency preparation actions: identifying people in your community to check in on during a heat event.

"If you live alone, find an extreme heat buddy to check in on you when it gets hot, and who you can also reach out to for help," reads the guide.

Justine Boulin/CBC
Justine Boulin/CBC

Where are the air conditioners?

There has been some criticism of the province over the amount of attention given to the new heat alerting system. A coroner's report from last summer called on the province to offer more support for vulnerable residents, who often can't escape the heat in their homes.

The province has yet to make public a review from that report about providing air conditioners as medical devices through existing programs in the province.

Henderson said she is optimistic that all levels of government are working hard to come up with measures to ward against future heat-related deaths.

"We are pushing … to get to an even better place," she said.