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'More work to do': B.C. premier addresses extreme heat response and planning

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On the two-year anniversary of the deadliest weather event in Canadian history, B.C.'s premier acknowledged that while much work has been done to respond to extreme heat events, more is needed.

David Eby touted the expansion of cooling systems in care homes, public housing and schools, as well as a new emergency response and alerting system, but said even the announcement of free air conditioning for at-risk people still doesn’t go far enough to address the risks of extreme heat evidenced by the fatal 2021 heat dome. 

“The work is certainly not done, we have a lot more work to do,” he replied when CTV News asked if he felt the response in the wake of the unprecedented heat was sufficient.

“I want to assure British Columbians that we're approaching it in a very systematic way, working through from the highest-risk areas that require our first priority,” said Eby, adding that the heat dome tragedy that saw 619 people die from hyperthermia was a key factor in his decision to establish the stand-alone Ministry for Emergency Response and Climate Resilience.

TWO PREMIERS, VERY DIFFERENT RESPONSES

Eby’s approach and acknowledgement that “British Columbians are on the front line of climate change” is a marked contrast to his predecessor, who dismissed the forecast and warnings about the high heat that was settling over much of North America in the days leading up to the Canada Day long weekend in 2021.

John Horgan, the premier at the time, infuriated the public after remarking that “fatalities are part of life” and that “the public was acutely aware we had a heat problem” on June 29.

According to the BC Coroner’s “Extreme Heat Death Review Panel Report,” 234 died that day alone.

Horgan later walked back his comments, acknowledging he and his administration were “giddy” as they lifted the last of the pandemic restrictions of the time and that it had distracted them from the incoming heat.

A CTV News review of documents and reports found that there had been a framework of recommendations to deal with heat emergencies after a 2009 heat wave that killed some 200 British Columbians, but the lessons from that tragedy had largely faded and the communication around the risk was lackluster at best.

In fact, the way the warning system was structured meant that few people aside from elite public health circles understood the warning issued late afternoon on Friday, June 26 was an unprecedented emergency that would lead to loss of life, and even those in the know dramatically underestimated the impact of record-breaking temperatures.

A TRAUMATIZING EVENT

E-Comm 911 had tried to raise the alarm about the weather system, and frontline paramedics had done the same, but BC Emergency Health Services didn’t increase staffing and its internal alert level until after the peak of the crisis. Some frontline medical staff who worked those grim days are still on leave after the trauma they experienced.

 

“I saw more patients with heat illness than I ever had in my entire career (during the heat dome),” said Dr. Melissa Lem, of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

“My emergency colleagues told me those shifts were the worst they'd ever had and they were literally running from room to room intubating patients having seizures from heat stroke.”

The province ultimately had to overhaul the ambulance service after it essentially collapsed, and has been successful in coordinating multi-agency planning and coordination for a Heat Alert Response System, which was one of the recommendations of a coroner’s report on the heat dome.

Despite those efforts, 16 people died from hyperthermia in B.C. last summer, suggesting that both short- and long-term responses and planning will be required to avoid more heat-related deaths as extreme weather events become more common. 

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