Deaths spike as heat wave broils Canada and the Pacific Northwest
By Vjosa Isai, Dan Bilefsky and Shawn Hubler
Hundreds of deaths in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon have been linked to a heat wave that has roasted the Pacific Northwest for days and broken Canadian heat records, sending hundreds of thousands of people scrambling for relief.
Lisa Lapointe, British Columbia’s chief coroner, said 486 deaths had been reported there between Friday and Wednesday afternoon — a period in which about 165 deaths would normally be documented. Deaths were expected to increase, she said.
“While it is too early to say with certainty how many of these deaths are heat related, it is believed likely that the significant increase in deaths reported is attributable to the extreme weather B.C. has experienced,” she said.
Oregon’s state medical examiner’s office on Wednesday attributed at least 63 deaths in five days to the punishing heat in that state, including 45 in Multnomah County, which includes Portland — where temperatures have reached a record 116 degrees Fahrenheit.
In Washington, officials reported nearly a dozen lives lost to hyperthermia on Wednesday alone in King County, which includes Seattle; two heat-related deaths were reported there the day before.
In Snohomish County, Washington, at least three people died this week from heatstroke, according to the medical examiner’s office, which added that investigations are pending into at least two more suspected heat-related deaths.
“This was a true health crisis that has underscored how deadly an extreme heat wave can be, especially to otherwise vulnerable people,” Dr. Jennifer Vines, the Multnomah County health officer, said in a statement. “I know many county residents were looking out for each other and am deeply saddened by this initial death toll.”
This year a study found that 37% of heat-related deaths could be linked to climate change. Global warming has raised baseline temperatures by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit on average since 1900, experts say.
“Climate change is increasing the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves,” said Kristie Ebi, a professor in the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington. “When you look at this heat wave, it is so far outside the range of normal.”
In Canada, John Horgan, the premier of British Columbia, said Tuesday that “the big lesson coming out of the past number of days is that the climate crisis is not a fiction.”
The heat wave in Canada has presented an additional public health concern even as authorities are still grappling with the challenge of the coronavirus and Canadians are just beginning to enjoy some of the pleasures of summer as restrictions ease.
On Tuesday, for the third consecutive day, British Columbia shattered its previous extreme heat record; the temperature in Lytton, a small town in the province, climbed to just over 121 degrees.
Such is the heat that some Vancouverites have fried eggs on their terraces. Others have traded in their sweltering homes for air-conditioned hotels or moved their home offices to shady places in their gardens.
The sizzling temperatures have also imperiled the crops of farmers in British Columbia, wilting lettuce and searing raspberries.
Capturing the national mood, Lyle Torgerson posted a video on Twitter on Sunday showing a bear and two cubs taking a dip in his backyard pool in Coquitlam, British Columbia. “The heat is unbearable, but if you take a quick dip you’ll survive,” he told The New York Times in a message on Instagram.
The Vancouver Police Department has dispatched dozens of additional officers to help deal with the situation, it said in a statement. While police usually attend to three to four sudden deaths a day, on average, the department said it has responded to more than 98 such calls since Friday, with 53 of those on Tuesday.
It also said two-thirds of the victims are ages 70 and older.
“We’ve never seen anything like this, and it breaks our hearts,” Sgt. Steve Addison said in a statement Tuesday, noting that the extreme heat appears to be a contributing factor to most of the cases.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Surrey, a municipality in metropolitan Vancouver, said in an email that it had responded to 35 sudden deaths in a 24-hour period.
The wildfire service of British Columbia was also coping with effects of the heat wave, grappling with overheated helicopter engines as it tried to contain severe wildfires. One had spread over about 5,700 acres as of Tuesday night, at Sparks Lake, about five hours northeast of Vancouver.
Before this week’s record-breaking heat, the last time Canada saw the mercury rise to similar heights was on July 5, 1937, when the temperature hit 113 degrees in rural Saskatchewan.