With another hot summer anticipated, the provincial government is providing $10 million in funding over three years for free air conditioners for vulnerable residents.
The Crown corporation will accept applications from members of the public with a focus on lower-income residents and seniors, and in some cases, health authorities will be able to provide referrals as well. Dix said he expects the program to distribute about 8,000 air conditioners in the next three years.
“It is anticipated that at least 50 per cent of air conditioning units will be installed in apartments or multi-unit dwellings with a balance in single-family dwellings,” Dix said.
“BC Hydro will work with a contractor to assess electrical requirements, air conditioner replacement, installation and provide training on how to use the air conditioner.”
The news comes more than two years after an unprecedented “heat dome” killed more than 600 people in B.C. between June 25 and July 1, 2021. The village of Lytton, in particular, set a national record for the hottest temperature ever recorded at 49.5 C on June 29, 2021.
The stretch of extreme heat was among the deadliest weather events in Canadian history.
In the aftermath of the casualties, a report from the BC Coroners Service recommended changes to the province’s building codes to require “passive and active cooling” in both new and existing developments by 2024. Passive cooling includes building design options like insulation, air tightness, ventilation and shading. Mechanical — or active — options include heat pumps and air conditioning.
The report published last August found that 98 per cent of those who died in the 2021 heat wave were indoors and most victims “lived in socially or materially deprived neighbourhoods,” compared with the general population. It estimated 93 per cent may have been without air conditioning and 76 per cent may have been without a fan.
Dix said the province is set to provide a progress update on the implementation of the report’s recommendations soon.
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Meanwhile, BC Hydro is also offering $50 rebates to all members of the public who purchase an eligible, energy-efficient room air conditioner by July 28. The utility provider is further providing $1.7 million in grants, in partnership with health authorities, BC Housing and other groups, to install 1,500 air conditioners in social housing units across the province.
“Air conditioning is no longer being considered a luxury among British Columbians,” BC Hydro CEO Chris O’Riley said at the news conference. “It is so vital that we get air conditioning to those who really need it.”
On Sunday, some B.C. residents held a vigil at the Vancouver Art Gallery to mark the two-year anniversary of the heat dome. They laid 619 boxes on the gallery steps, each representing one of the lives lost.
Activists said the provincial government has failed to make a number of meaningful changes after the heat dome, including some outlined in the BC Coroners Service report. Living in comfortable temperatures is a basic right, according to Sunday vigil organizer Derrick O’Keefe.
“Ninety-eight per cent of people died inside. That’s people dying in their own homes for no reason except the lack of political will,” he told Global News.
The province has funded $369 million for its Community Emergency Preparedness Initiative since 2017.
To better prepare for heat-related emergencies in the future, last year the B.C. government launched its BC Heat Alert and Response System, enabling it to issue a public alert for extreme heat emergencies.
That system can either send a heat warning or an extreme heat emergency alert. For the latter, the province has said alerts will also be issued through Alert Ready, the national public alerting system used for Amber alerts and natural disaster warnings.
“Globally, and here in British Columbia we are witnessing a range of health impacts that are directly linked to changing climate patterns,” Dix said.
“Vulnerable people are among the most likely to experience the effects of extreme heat and suffer from these climate change-related impacts to the social determinants of health.”
Extreme temperatures can contribute to heat stroke, increased rates of respiratory illness and mental distress, as well as create a more hospitable environment for disease-carrying insects, Dix said, naming just a few possible health consequences.
Last year, the province published a new extreme heat preparedness guide, outlining steps residents can take to protect themselves and others.
If an extreme heat emergency has been issued, for example, the public is encouraged to close and cover windows during the day, make ice and prepare jugs of cold water, move to cooler places if possible and ensure digital thermometers have batteries. Cool showers and sleeping with a wet sheet or shirt on are other tricks for beating the heat, the guide adds.
If someone appears to be in heat distress, with symptoms such as rapid breathing and heartbeat, extreme thirst and decreased urination, residents are advised to call 911, submerge the person in cool water and apply wet cloths to bare skin.
More information on heat safety is available on the BC Centre for Disease Control’s website.