The BC Coroners Service says at least 719 people died over a one-week period during B.C.’s scorching heat wave, three times more than would normally have been expected to die over the same period.
In a statement Friday, Chief Coroner Lisa LaPointe said many of those deaths were likely a result of the heat.
“We are releasing this information as it is believed likely the extreme weather B.C. has experienced in the past week is a significant contributing factor to the increased number of deaths,” LaPointe said.
“Today, the coroners service is seeing a downward trend from the number of deaths reported over the past few days, and we are hopeful this trend will continue.”
The update comes after Global News reported that BC Emergency Health Services, which operates the province’s paramedics, did not activate its 24/7 emergency coordination centre until Tuesday — the day after B.C.’s deadly heat wave began to subside.
The centre allows the service to re-prioritize work and re-deploy staff to focus on a crisis.
Amid the scorching heat, many British Columbians reported waiting for hours for ambulances, while others took it upon themselves to go to fire halls looking for help.
On Thursday, BC Emergency Health Services chief operating officer Darlene MacKinnon offered an apology to British Columbians who’d been left waiting.
“We know some people have waited too long for a response, and we sympathize and we apologize for that,” she said.
But MacKinnon also defended BCEHS’ performance during the crisis.
“We had all the powers we needed to respond to the heat wave. We were facing unprecedented challenges for our staff,” she said.
“It’s been incredibly hard, I think we’re incredibly proud of our staff, and I think we’ve done a very good job in the response.”
Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of BC union called the late opening of the coordination centre a “poor decision.”
“To respond after the fact indicates to me a lack of understanding of our true public safety emergency management component of our role or just poor decision making,” he said.
“I don’t know if they were caught off guard or just failed to look ahead.”
Gord Ditchburn, president of the B.C. Professional Firefighters Association told Global News he was unsatisfied with MacKinnon’s apology.
“She didn’t say what was going to happen next, what steps were going to be happening to make it better,” he said.
“What she left the public wondering was why, what, where, when how? None of those questions were answered and the apology was hollow.”
Ditchburn said front-line first responders had performed admirably, but that they had been let down by management.
He said if the province had been facing a larger disaster, the response would have been catastrophic.
Dozens of B.C. temperature records were shattered over the course of the heat wave, and the community of Lytton saw heat that broke the all-time temperature record for Canada on three consecutive days.
The coroners service is working to produce an in-depth report for the province on heat deaths, which will include recommendations about how to prevent similar deaths in the future.