VANCOUVER: Millions of people in western Canada and the northwestern United States were under heat alerts on Wednesday (Jun 30) as the region baked in record-breaking temperatures and police reported scores of deaths likely linked to the scorching conditions.
The heat wave has stretched emergency services, with at least 134 people dying suddenly since Friday in the Vancouver area, according to Canadian police.
“The temperatures recorded this week are unprecedented – lives have been lost and the risk of wildfires is at a dangerously high level,” said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In the northwest US city of Seattle, doctors reported a flood of heatstroke victims, and at least two patients – aged 65 and 68 – died of hyperthermia as their bodies overheated, according to the Seattle Times.
Soaring temperatures in California’s valley, mountain and desert areas raised fears of wildfires amid windy dry conditions, with lightning storms that could spark blazes forecast across several parts of the western US.
President Joe Biden told a virtual meeting with governors from western states that “the threat of western wildfires this year is as severe as it’s ever been.”
Recalling last year’s record wildfires that burned more than 10 million acres across the US and caused “orange skies that looked like end of days”, Biden warned that this year “could be even tougher”.
Federal officials say the fire season is already outpacing last year’s – the worst on record in drought-hit California.
Around 9,000 firefighters have already been deployed to battle blazes across a dozen US states, in particular northern California’s Lava Fire, which has scorched more than 17,000 acres.
Canada set a new all-time high temperature record for a third day in a row on Tuesday, reaching 49.5 degrees Celsius in Lytton, about 250 kilometres east of Vancouver, the country’s weather service, Environment Canada, reported.
The Vancouver Police Department said it alone had responded to more than 98 sudden deaths since Friday, with the vast majority “related to the heat”.
The Pacific coast city has for several days recorded temperatures above 30 degrees Celsiust – almost 12 degrees above seasonal norms.
Some Vancouver locals said they had never experienced such temperatures before.
“It’s never this bad. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said resident who only gave her name as Rosa.
“I hope it never becomes like this ever again. This is too much.”
Others lamented that some residents were more vulnerable to the heat than others.
“I feel for those people whether they’re the elderly demographic or people who live on the downtown eastside of Vancouver who don’t have a cool spot to live or sleep,” said river swimmer Graham Griedger.
Environment Canada said the city’s heat wave would become less intense from Wednesday but unseasonably hot temperatures would persist for the remainder of the week.
‘WON’T BE THE LAST’
Climate change is causing record-setting temperatures to become more frequent. Globally, the decade to 2019 was the hottest recorded, and the five hottest years have all occurred within the last five years.
“We’ve been seeing more and more of this type of extreme weather event in the past years. So realistically, we know that this heat wave won’t be the last,” said Trudeau.
The scorching heat stretching to Canada’s Arctic territories has been blamed on a high-pressure “heat dome” trapping warm air in the region.
Temperatures in the US Pacific Northwest cities of Portland and Seattle reached levels not seen since record-keeping began in the 1940s: 46 degrees Celsius in Portland and 42 degrees in Seattle on Monday.
The premier of British Columbia, which includes Vancouver, said the “hottest week British Columbians have ever experienced” was having “disastrous consequences for families and for communities”.
John Horgan urged “checking up on those people we know might be at risk, making sure we have cold compresses in the fridge or we’re staying in the coolest part of our homes”.
The province’s chief coroner reported “a significant increase in deaths reported where it is suspected that extreme heat has been contributory”.
The service said in a statement it recorded 233 deaths between Friday and Monday, compared with 130 on average.
The heat wave has forced schools and COVID-19 vaccination centers to close in the Vancouver area, while officials set up temporary water fountains and misting stations on street corners.
Cities across the western United States and Canada opened emergency cooling centres and outreach workers handed out bottles of water and hats.