The summer heat and yellowed skies hitting the B.C. South Coast this week may not seem like a big deal but statistically speaking — the combination is potentially deadly.
Environment Canada has issued special weather and air quality statements for the Lower Mainland, warning of a heat wave that could see temperatures in the mid to high 30s inland starting Wednesday.
That may change, with smoky skies blocking the sun somewhat.
But if the forecasts hold, this week could rival the unprecedented and deadly heat wave of 2009, said Sarah Henderson, senior environmental health scientist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
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That summer, over seven days, 110 more people died than would be seen in an average summer week in the region, said Henderson, who studied the 2009 heat wave that changed how officials respond to heat in the region.
"Before 2009, we didn't even think that type of event was possible in the Lower Mainland," said Henderson.
Now, something like it — with wildfire smoke on top — could again claim lives.
"Unfortunately, it's likely," said Henderson, which is why officials are responding to the threat with water fountains, cooling centres, misting stations and warnings to the public — trying to avoid that fate.
"My hope would be that even if we see temperatures that are equivalent to the 2009 event, we wouldn't see the same magnitude of impact on the population."
City braces for 'extreme weather'
Heat is the main killer, said Henderson, although fine particulate matter from wildfires is also adding to the physiological strain.
As of 9 a.m. PT, Wednesday, the Air Quality Health Index had reached "high risk" for parts of the South Coast, including:
- Metro Vancouver NE — 7
- Metro Vancouver NW — 7
- Eastern Fraser Valley — 8
- Whistler — 7
- Squamish — 7
"The city is bracing for extreme weather," said Mayor Gregor Robertson.
"This [smoke and heat] is an unusual combination for Vancouver, although with climate change we're seeing more and more of these extreme weather events."
The City of Vancouver announced its plans to help people cope with the heat, especially those most vulnerable, including the very young and old, pregnant women, and people who are homeless, mentally ill or have underlying health conditions.
It has established cooling centres at 10 community centres and installed temporary water fountains at five locations:
- Ontario Street and East 1st Avenue.
- Commercial Drive and East Broadway.
- Granville Street and West 70th Avenue.
- East Hastings Street and Heatley Street.
- Robson Street and Bidwell Street.
Community centres are also providing water and sunscreen to vulnerable people, and city housing operations have a hot weather support plan for tenants, encouraging them to find air conditioning.
Everyone is urged to find ways to cool down, whether it's a pool, spray park or air conditioned building like a library or community centre.
"You're not a wuss if you want to spend a couple of hours in air conditioning on a really hot day," said Henderson.
"This isn't spoiling yourself. This is keeping yourself healthy."
Booze warning at big events
With major outdoor events planned this week — including the Pride Parade and Celebration of Lights fireworks — officials are also warning about drinking alcohol.
"We'd like to remind people that alcohol's effects worsen when hot," said Chief Darrell Reid with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.
Moreover, the warning signs for heat-related illness — which include dizziness, difficulty walking and difficulty communicating — might be masked by booze, said Réka Gustafson of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.
"One of the reasons we want to make sure that people moderate their alcohol intake is that some of the symptoms can be confused, as well as people may not take the precautions that are necessary."
Health officials are asking everyone to watch out for people who may be in distress due to heat and help them cool off with cold water to the face and neck or, if they are unresponsive, call 911.