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B.C. heat wave likely responsible for many of 486 sudden deaths in last 5 days: coroner

Click to play video: 'Stunning new numbers from B.C. coroner on heat-related deaths'
Stunning new numbers from B.C. coroner on heat-related deaths
Some stunning new numbers from the B.C. coroner show just how deadly the June heatwave was. Emad Agahi reports – Jun 30, 2021

British Columbia’s chief coroner says there were at least 486 sudden unexplained deaths in the province in the last five days amid an unprecedented heat wave.

Lisa LaPointe said that’s a 195 per cent increase over the number of deaths that would usually occur over the same period of time.

Click to play video: 'Should B.C. start preparing for more deadly heat events?'
Should B.C. start preparing for more deadly heat events?

“While it’s 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 at a press briefing Wednesday afternoon.

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Dozens of B.C. temperature records were shattered in recent days, and the community of Lytton saw heat that broke the all-time temperature record for Canada on three consecutive days.

LaPointe said the number of deaths was so significant that coroners are still responding to and gathering information about some of the fatalities.

When that work is done, her office will prepare a report for the government about how to approach future extreme heat events.

Click to play video: 'Advocates critical of province’s handling of heatwave'
Advocates critical of province’s handling of heatwave

“There are many things I think many of us can learn in terms of response; in terms of informing the public about the risk,” LaPointe said.

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“I think it’s very likely many of us misunderstood the extreme risk. We’re not used to this heat. In retrospect, we’ll be looking at what we can do differently to prevent similar deaths in the future.”

In the meantime, LaPoint urged people to do whatever they can to stay cool, including seeking out air conditioning or shade. She also reminded people to check on friends and family — particularly if they are vulnerable.

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Earlier Wednesday, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth faced questions about the province’s response to the deadly heat, and whether there was more the government could have done in advance.

“What we have seen here is absolutely unprecedented. I can tell you that in the last five years in the entire province of British Columbia there have only been three heat-related deaths,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Suffocating heat wave blamed for nearly 500 deaths in B.C.'
Suffocating heat wave blamed for nearly 500 deaths in B.C.

Farnworth said the province had made funding for cooling centres and firefighters available to local governments and First Nations on Friday, and coordinated with health authorities about issuing extreme heat alerts.

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“There was important work that was undertaken by Emergency Management BC and the Ministry of Health as well,” he said.

Report to probe deaths

LaPointe said once coroners had finished responding to individual fatalities, the coroner’s service would look for patterns in the deaths, such as the regions and housing types they occurred in along with people’s ages, genders or possible underlying conditions.

It will then look to areas where actions could be taken to make a difference in future heat events, a process LaPointe said could take several months.

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Farnworth said the province was open to suggestions on how to fill gaps in the Ministry of Health, his own ministry, or in the public sphere.

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“One of the challenges … is that many people were living by themselves in condos, particularly in the Lower Mainland, where there is no air conditioning, for example,” he said.

“Do we need to look at stratas, for example, having a plan when a heat alert is put in place so you check on the residents of the building to make sure they’re OK?”

Click to play video: 'Heat wave stressing B.C.’s Emergency Health Services'
Heat wave stressing B.C.’s Emergency Health Services

The province was also in the process of re-writing the Emergency Preparedness Act in the wake of COVID-19, noting that it has traditionally been focused on fire and flood emergencies.

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Scientists say that with climate change, such extreme heat events will become hotter, more frequent and of longer duration, a factor Farnworth said the province wanted to plan for.

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“This type of heat wave is not typical of British Columbia. But with the reality of climate change we can’t ignore the potential for this to become more common in the future,” he said.

“We have to be ready, because we can’t ignore the possibility of a next time, and it’s clear we can’t rely on what we’ve done in the past.”

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