Hundreds succumbed to scorching temperatures. Why was BC’s toll so much higher than Washington and Oregon? A Tyee special report.
[Excerpts] Jennifer Thompson lives on a shaded street in New Westminster, B.C., a city of 71,000 located on the banks of the Fraser River, around a 30-minute drive east of Vancouver. Her neighbourhood is filled with colourful Victorian-era houses. Picket fences guard neatly-kept lawns, ornamental shrubs and fruit trees.
On Monday, June 28, Thompson noticed something unusual. There was a car parked in front of her house in the shade of a cherry tree, and it was making a strained revving sound.
Glancing inside, Thompson could see a woman in her late 60s or early 70s, leaning back in the reclined seat. Thompson asked the woman if she needed help.
“I’m really grateful that she said, ‘I’m not OK,’” Thompson said.
Depending on where you live in Metro Vancouver, temperatures that day had soared to the low to high 30s, but in many communities it felt like 40 to 46 C. Many residents hadn’t fully grasped that B.C., along with Washington and Oregon, was locked under an unusual weather system called a heat dome trapping the high temperatures. It wasn’t cooling off overnight, and the heat had been building for days.
With the help of her husband, Kurt, Thompson helped the woman out of her car and into their house. They led her down the stairs to the basement, where family members had been sleeping to get a break from the heat.
The woman told her new hosts that her name was Carol [pseudonym], but she was disoriented and weak. The couple gave her water and food and applied cold towels to the back of her neck to try to cool her down, but it didn’t seem to be helping much.
They asked if they could help take her home, but Carol said no: she was sure if she went back to her apartment, she would die. Later, Thompson would learn that Carol had been sleeping in her car for two nights with the air conditioning on to try to get some relief from the heat.
When Thompson called 911 for an ambulance, the dispatcher told her it would take between eight and 12 hours for paramedics to arrive. Thompson urged Carol to let the couple take her to the hospital, but she refused to go. So they decided to let Carol stay overnight in their basement.
“We were worried that she would die in the basement,” Thompson said.
June 25 to 27: ‘I witnessed everything sort of crumble’
On Friday, June 25, Kevin Marriott was heading into two day shifts followed by two night shifts as a dispatch supervisor with the BC Ambulance Service. Marriott has been an ambulance dispatcher for 20 years, and before that worked as a paramedic for a decade.
When Marriott started his shift at 5 p.m. on June 27, there was already a backlog of calls. During the next 12 hours, the dispatchers on duty never caught up. People were waiting up to 25 minutes just to talk to a dispatcher, and then they were waiting hours for the ambulance to arrive.
Extreme heat can cause a range of serious injuries. When people get severely dehydrated, there’s not enough fluid and blood in their bodies to get enough blood flow to the kidneys. The kidneys are organs that filter waste, toxic substances and excess fluid from the body and expel the waste in urine.
“When you are dehydrated and don’t have enough fluids, enough flow to the kidneys, your kidneys start to shut down,” said Dr. Elise Jackson, an internal medicine resident who worked at two Vancouver hospitals during the heat dome. “As a result of that, you get a lot of other complications.”
Toxins can start building up inside the body, and patients’ potassium and sodium levels can also rise to dangerous levels. A guide produced by the U.K.’s National Health Service explains the role potassium and sodium play in keeping the body functioning properly.
“Paramedics described going into basement suites where it was upwards of 50 C,” said Troy Clifford, the president of the union that represents paramedics in B.C.
While many patients recovered, some died weeks after being admitted to hospital.
Data released by the BC Coroners Service shows that while 526 people died during the heat dome event, another 67 died between July 2 and Aug. 12.
“The injury [that took their life] was actually the heat injury that occurred initially in that week, but the people sadly ultimately succumbed in the weeks after,” Dr. Taj Baidwan, chief medical officer for the BC Coroners Service, told CTV News. “The organs take time sometimes, and the body fights against dying. Essentially those processes take time, and that’s what we saw.”
In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, the many failures of the ambulance service were under intense scrutiny. Documents obtained by the BC Liberal Opposition through freedom of information requests showed that in the weeks leading up to the heat dome, senior leadership at E-Comm 911 had issued dire warnings about staffing problems at B.C. Ambulance Service. During the heat dome, the B.C. Ambulance Service didn’t activate its emergency management centre until the most extreme temperatures had passed — a response that could have helped with staffing levels and co-ordination.
Dr. Sarah Henderson, one of the BCCDC researchers who analyzed factors that contributed to heat dome deaths, said cooling centres were available throughout B.C., but they weren’t used that much. She said creating a registry of vulnerable people, increasing green space in deprived neighbourhoods, and improving communication and outreach could help prevent a similar tragedy in the future.
To access the entire article, click on: Inside June’s Deadly Heat Dome. And Surviving the Next One