June heat wave was the deadliest weather event in Canadian history, experts say

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After a record-breaking heat wave this summer, provincial health leaders acknowledge more needs to be done to prepare for more extreme weather to come.

According to Sarah Henderson, scientific director of B.C. Centre for Disease Control, the June heat dome was "the most deadly weather event in Canadian history."

"It's referred to as a 'one-in-a-thousand-year' event. But of course it's happened now. And it presents us with the obligation to develop and increase our collective resiliency," said Health Minister Adrian Dix in a panel discussion during the Union of B.C. Municipalities' virtual convention in September.

Between June 25 and July 1, temperatures rose above 40 C in many parts of the province, which according to the B.C. Coroners Service directly caused the deaths of 570 people.

Many people waited hours for ambulances as paramedics were stretched to their limits.

"It is a very stark reminder that climate change is real and that we need to take action together," said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry during the event.

The largest increases in deaths due to the heat wave were seen in the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health Authorities, specifically in New Westminster, Burnaby and Vancouver, mostly in private residences.

An analysis conducted by the province showed that more deaths occurred in areas with more low-income residents, a high number of residents living alone, and less green space. Seniors made up a majority of heat-related deaths.

Dix said that while there was significant effort put into supporting long-term care homes, creating temporary cooling centres, and providing consistent health information, it was not enough.

"We required an all-hands-on-deck response and I believe we had it, but in some ways it was still not efficient," said Dix.

In the face of the ambulance shortage, fire crews resorted to accompanying ill but stable patients in taxis to the hospital, said New Westminster Councillor Patrick Johnstone, who was also part of the panel.

The province is funding 85 new full-time paramedic positions and 20 full-time dispatchers, putting in place 22 new ambulances, and converting 22 rural ambulance stations to provide service 24/7. However, further solutions are still needed, said Dix.

Human-caused climate change to blame

According to early analysis from climate groups, the heat dome would have been impossible without anthropogenic climate change, or human-caused climate change.

"The next one-in-a-thousand year event is very unlikely to be 1,000 years from now," said Henderson, citing the wildfire season of 2017, followed by more extreme wildfires in 2018.

The province's last deadly heat wave in 2009 resulted in an estimated 110 deaths.

"This could happen again next summer … the only way to effectively prepare is to convince ourselves that it might."

Meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe, who was also part of the panel, said this could become a "one in five-to-ten-year event by 2050" under a 2 C rise in global temperatures. Wagstaffe is also a science reporter with CBC.

"Climate change is already shifting the baseline," she said.

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