VANCOUVER -- The temperatures were similar, the response from residents identical, so why did British Columbia see so many more suspected heat-related deaths from last month’s brutal heat dome than Washington and Oregon?

The detailed and complex analysis required to reach conclusions will likely take months if not longer, but there are some early indicators of what could’ve played the biggest role.

Health officials in both states have already narrowed down their death tolls, but the BC Coroner Service is still vague about the final death toll since the investigation is still underway with no timeline presented.

Washington’s Department of Health emphasizes its numbers are preliminary and subject to change, but it believes 112 people died during the heat wave (the state population is 7.6 million) . In Oregon, the heat is being blamed for 115 deaths state-wide (population 4.3 million) and officials have already provided information on the ethnicities, living situations and ZIP codes of the deceased.

In British Columbia, the coroner’s service is reporting 808 people died from June 25 to July 1 as temperature records were shattered across the province; the five-year average for deaths during that week is 198, so it’s likely about 600 people died from heat-related causes in the province of 5.1 million.

While June 30 showed the most deaths in the province at 300, the coroner’s service clarified that the figures reflect the day the person was found, not necessarily the day they died. 

Factors to consider

The circumstances of the heat dome, the responses from public health and various levels of government, as well as long-term factors like green space access and air conditioning avialabilty will likely be the topic of analysis and scholarly dissection for months if not years.

The BC Coroner’s Service is conducting a review and will make recommendations to policymaker based on their findings; it’s unclear how long that could take but the agency has fast-tracked the process to avoid the province’s notoriously slow death reporting process

While Oregon experienced rolling blackouts that cut power to fans and air conditioning, they still had far fewer deaths per capita than B.C., which didn’t have any significant hydro interruptions.

British Columbia also had considerable waits for ambulances as BC Emergency Health Services admitted they didn’t activate their top response level and boost staffing levels until the heat was starting to subside. 

A CTV News analysis of reports from the BCCDC and other advisors to governments and public health offiicals following a 2009 heat wave that saw a surge of deaths, provides some insight into what the factors will likely include: the early onset of the record temperatures (before people had had a chance to acclimatize their bodies to intense heat), the wet bulb temperature (heat and humidity combined), the fact overnight temperatures didn’t drop enough to provide relief, as well as the danger to seniors and the disabled living alone.

Communication on both sides of the border appears fairly consistent, with all health officials encouraging frequent water-drinking, seeking out shade and watching for signs of heat stroke. But Americans’ direct approach may have had some impact.

While Metro Vancouver health authorities enacted a “high heat alert”, but didn’t publicize the designation was unprecedented and high-risk, the city of Seattle didn’t mince words: “Excessive heat can be a hidden killer,” reads the first line of its section on excessive heat.

Proactive communication south of the 49

Seattle’s mayor also held a press conference days before the heat dome hit peak temperatuers, explaining what they’d done to prepare and draw attention to the risks anticipated with temperatures forecast to break records.

While B.C.’s municipalities enacted their heat wave plans, opening cooling centres, activating sprinklers in parks and providing tips on how to stay cool through their social media channels, websites and press releases – none of them offered overnight air conditioned accomodations for serniors or those struggling in the heat and the province’s top doctor acknolwedged the typical response to an exceptional heat wave wasn’t nearly enough.

“We're not a province that has experienced routine heat waves, unlike places like Toronto…and certainly we've never, ever experienced something like what happened,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry.

She says her office and the minsitry of health aren’t waiting for the coroners’ report as they learn and prepare for what could be a long, hot summer.