British Columbia

Hundreds died because they couldn't escape B.C.'s extreme heat. Alerts wouldn't have saved them, advocates say

B.C. is preparing for the possibility of another deadly heat event after hundreds died last summer from extreme heat, but some worry the provincial government isn't doing enough.

Officials' recommendations and promises ignore reality many vulnerable people find themselves in, critics say

Tracey McKinlay was one of 619 people who died from extreme heat in B.C. last summer. Her sister, Jeanne Hansen, is now fundraising to get cooling devices to other vulnerable people in the hopes it will save lives. (Mike Zimmer/CBC)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled "Our Changing Planet" to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.


Jeanne Hansen's sister Tracey McKinlay died as a result of extreme heat on June 28, 2021. 

"It's hard not to feel guilty," Hansen said. 

"We should have done a little bit more, you know, phoning Tracey wasn't enough."

She wishes she'd gone to her sister's apartment in New Westminster, B.C., to check on her. 

Hansen says according to the coroner, McKinlay's kidneys were weakened by medication she took for mental illness. And as temperatures soared, she died alone in her apartment.

According to a new report from the B.C. Coroner's Service, 619 people died from extreme heat last summer — one of whom was McKinlay, who was 61.

The report released Tuesday calls on the provincial government to offer more support for vulnerable British Columbians the next time extreme heat blankets the province. 

This month B.C. is introducing a heat alert and response system to help residents when temperatures climb. Alerts will be issued through the national Alert Ready system, which is already being used for Amber Alerts, tsunami and wildfire warnings. 

The province has also created the Prepared B.C. Extreme Heat Guide, which offers advice on how to get ready for extreme heat and how to identify safety risks when it comes to hot weather.

But some say those efforts aren't enough.

Air conditioning, not alerts, needed: Advocates

Hansen says an alert wouldn't have helped her sister, who suffered from mental illness; she didn't have a phone and didn't pay attention to the news.

"A lot of these folks don't have the wherewithal to go on the Internet or call anyone," she said. "They don't want to leave their buildings."

Instead, she's focused on raising funds to buy fans and air conditioners for people like her sister so they can survive should another heat event hit the province this year — something advocates for vulnerable people say needs to be happening at a higher level.

WATCH | Most victims of B.C.'s lethal heat wave died indoors, report says:

Gabrielle Peters is a disabled writer and policy analyst who was tapped to help write the coroner's report but ultimately resigned because she said she didn't see enough urgency behind helping the province's most vulnerable. 

One of her key recommendations, which she says went ignored, was to make air conditioners or other cooling devices available as medical devices this coming summer. She argues that last year's deaths were caused not by a lack of knowledge about the risk of heat, but instead by the inability of poor, disabled and elderly people to escape it.

"People did not die because they didn't have enough communications materials. People died because they were unable to escape the heat," Peters said.

While the coroner's report recommends the Ministry of Health review the possibility of making air conditioners and other cooling devices available to vulnerable people as medical equipment by Dec. 1 this year, Peters points out the timeline will be too late should extreme heat hit the province this summer.

Climate costs and cooling centres

Dr. Jatinder Baidwan, chief medical officer with the B.C. Coroners Service, warned that while outfitting more homes with power-sucking devices could keep people cool in the short run, longer-term they would likely contribute to more rapid climate change.

"Ten to 15 years, we probably would see the effects of all those air conditioning units being used," he said. 

A person uses a misting station in Vancouver in June 2021. The B.C. Coroners Service has released a report calling on the provincial government to offer more support for vulnerable British Columbians the next time extreme heat blankets the province. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Instead, he suggested the focus be on updating building codes to utilize passive cooling and the use of public cooling spaces where vulnerable people can go during extreme heat events.

But Peters said the emphasis on public cooling centres ignores the reality that many disabled people — herself included — are unable to easily reach such spaces, particularly during extreme weather.

"[I'd have to] haul myself into my wheelchair, wheel down into the outdoor heat and poor air quality and find a cooling, clean air space," she said.

"That's an absurd suggestion. It's akin to telling somebody with a broken leg to get on the bus ... and buy some crutches."

Evacuation plans, improved building codes

B.C.'s seniors' advocate Isobel Mackenzie echoed Peters' calls for cooling devices to be provided to vulnerable people.

She said if that's not possible, the province should have evacuation plans in place similar to those that occur during floods and fires, in order to transport people into cooler spaces.

"You have to have a plan for when the temperatures move beyond uncomfortable levels and move into deadly for certain parts of the population," she said.

Adrian Dix, minister of health, and Mike Farnworth, minister of public safety, are pictured during a press conference regarding last year’s heat wave deaths in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Blair Feltmate, who heads the University of Waterloo's Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, said B.C. is providing a good template for other provinces on how to prepare for extreme heat, but argued there needs to be a more aggressive focus on making communities cooler overall through building codes and planning.

"We would not expect people to get through the winter with no heat," he said. "We should similarly think about the fact that during extreme heat in the summer, we should not expect them to in there without a cooling capacity. So we really have to mobilize."

LISTEN | Planners say Canadian cities need to prepare for more extreme heat:

A new B.C. Coroners Service report examining last year's heat dome details just how unprepared the province was to deal with extreme heat. Guest host Nahlah Ayed discusses the lessons learned and the need for more actionable steps with Robyn Chan, the Chair of the Vancouver City Planning Commission; and Blair Feltmate, the head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo.

Emergency services still unprepared: Ambulance union

Feltmate also suggested the province put people in place to go door to door to check on vulnerable people during extreme heat in order to see if they need help — but Blair and others were uncertain if the resources could be found, given the province's already-stretched emergency services system.

According to the coroner's report, the number of calls to 911 doubled at the heat dome's peak. It said 54 per cent of heat dome-related cases were attended by paramedics with a median response time of 10 minutes and 25 seconds.

In 50 cases, paramedics took 30 minutes or longer from the time of the call until arrival. Callers to 911 were placed on hold for an extended period 17 times. Six callers were told there was no ambulance available at the time of their call. 

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic is pictured outside of St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver in June 2021. At the height of last year's heat dome, six callers were told there was no ambulance available at the time of their call, according to the coroners' report. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province is hiring more emergency response professionals, including 125 new full-time paramedics and 42 dispatchers, and adding 22 more ambulances. 

Troy Clifford, president of the union that represents paramedics and dispatchers in B.C., said he appreciates the efforts the province has made to address gaps in emergency response in the province, but he believes it's still not enough.

"I'm not confident we have the capacity and the staffing to respond to another heat dome the way it needs to be [responded to]," he said.

He said the biggest challenge is recruitment and retention of paramedics, primarily because of wages. 

"It's going to take a significant influx of funding and resources to get this on track," Clifford said.

LISTEN | B.C.'s paramedics union says they aren't prepared for another heat emergency

Troy Clifford has been a paramedic for 34 years and is President of the Ambulance Paramedics of BC. He spoke with Kathryn Marlow about how prepared the ambulance service is for future extreme heat events.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Courtney Dickson

Broadcast and Digital Journalist

Courtney Dickson is a journalist working in Vancouver, B.C. Email her at courtney.dickson@cbc.ca with story tips.

With files from Andrew Kurjata, Jon Azpiri and Lyndsay Duncombe

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now