Across the Pacific Northwest and into Canada, a record-breaking heat wave has pushed death tolls into staggering territory. In British Columbia alone, at least 500 heat-related deaths have been recorded since last Friday. In Oregon, 95 deaths have been attributed to scorching temperatures, as well as about 20 in Washington.
The past week has brought unprecedented temperatures to a region of North America ill-equipped to handle extreme heat as authorities struggle to respond to thousands of emergency calls, hundreds of deaths, and explosive wildfires. The unprecedented event is also a sign of more danger to come as climate change leads to more extreme weather across the country.
Many of the people killed or at risk of heat-related illness were children, older people, or those who live alone in a region where many people do not have air conditioning.
“For some folks, especially those who are elderly and those who are otherwise ill, they may not have the same [bodily] mechanisms built in. And if you don't have access to clean water, if you don't have access to a place to get cool, you could get overheated very quickly,” said Vasisht Srinivasan, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Washington. “It’s a very serious problem. When you have folks who are poor or don't have access to stable housing, who don't have access to housing with temperature control … the problem really starts to compound itself.”
David Jones, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, said one difficulty in treating heat-related illness is recognizing the symptoms, which can range from grumpiness to feeling lightheaded and cramping.
“It may not even be the heat that is the problem, but it is kind of exacerbating their own underlying condition,” Jones said. “And because of the heat, it kind of puts an extra stress on their body … which makes it dangerous for them.”
Srinivasan said that pandemic-era restrictions made people afraid to leave their homes for crowded cooling centers, and the heat wave forced hospitals to dip into reserves of cooling blankets and fans.
“Now on top of [COVID], you add a temporary, but very real, additional health crisis and hospitals are finding themselves sort of at the brink,” Srinivasan said. “This weekend, when dozens of patients arrived simultaneously with the same problems, resources tend to get strapped very quickly.”
The heat wave began last Friday when high pressure in the atmosphere forced warm air toward the ground. The compressed, warm air has been trapped under that high pressure in what meteorologists call a heat dome, which is rare for the Pacific Northwest region.
“The North West Territories have recorded their all-time highest temperatures not just in June, but at any point in the year,” Armel Castellan, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said
in a statement, adding that fewer than than 40% of homes on the coast have air conditioning. “We are setting records that have no business in being set so early in the season.”
Vancouver police spokesperson Tania Visintin confirmed 53 sudden deaths, in which the cause of death is not known and a coroner is called in to run an investigation, were reported on Tuesday alone, bringing the total since last Friday to 98. Two-thirds of the victims were 70 or older and the vast majority of deaths have occurred in homes.
“At times, there were officers going from one sudden death to another for their entire 12-hour shift,” Visintin said, adding that the department was forced to stop answering any nonurgent calls and deploy extra officers. “It is typical for three to four sudden death calls to come in each day in the city. But to have 53 in one day is unprecedented … it is truly gut-wrenching.”
The spokesperson added that “heat is looking like the obvious factor for most of the deaths,” although the British Columbia Coroners Service is still investigating. As of Thursday afternoon, the spokesperson said names and descriptions of the victims could not be provided.
“We’ve never seen anything like this, and it breaks our hearts,” Vancouver Police Sgt. Steve Addison said in a statement. “If you have an elderly or vulnerable family member, please give them a call or stop by to check on them.”
Scientists and health experts have attributed the record-setting temperatures to the climate crisis — and warn that it’s only going to get worse going forward.
“We cannot just turn up the AC; we have to turn up our level of efforts fighting the underlying cause of our changing world — climate change,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wrote Tuesday in a Seattle Times op-ed. “Our recent discomfort is but the tip of the melting iceberg. What we felt this week is just the opening act in a looming global disaster.
The Oregon state medical examiner reported 95 heat-related deaths as of Friday. Temperature records were set across the state, with Portland reaching an all-time high of 116 degrees on Monday, the Oregonian reported.
“I’ve lived in Portland for the past 10 years, and when I got here, Portland was a very temperate city,” Jones said. “And over the course of that time, I think, in the wintertime, we're seeing more snow, and in the summertime, we're seeing more prolonged heat spells.”
He added that the city will have to adapt to address public health threats as heat waves become a more permanent presence.
“That's going to mean more cooling stations throughout the city, that's going to mean easier access to water, that's going to mean shade and shelter, either provision or opportunities for people,” Jones said. “It's one thing to talk about a hot day, it's a whole other thing to talk about a hot two weeks.”
The casualties reveal the dangers of extreme weather to laborers too. Sebastian Francisco Perez, a 38-year-old farmworker from Guatemala, died in Oregon after being found unresponsive in a field as temperatures reached 104 degrees. A spokesperson for the Oregon Health and Safety Administration said the agency is investigating Brother Farm Labor Contractor and Ernst Nursery and Farms regarding his death last week
The farm declined BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
Rebecca Muessle, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Portland, told BuzzFeed News the region has gone more than 40 years “without hitting a record like this,” adding that the rarity of the event makes it difficult to conclude that the heat wave is in fact indicative of future weather patterns.
Muessle said this particular heat wave had all of the right “ingredients” to be particularly brutal: the high pressure system, easterly winds bringing additional warmer air into the area, and the “incredibly deep layer of hot air” that manifested the heat dome system. Also missing were westerly winds that are typically responsible for bringing in cooler air from the Pacific Ocean.
“We just had no reprieve,” Muessle said. “So it was just almost like a blow-dryer of hot easterly winds that just kept the temperatures rising and rising.”
In Washington, Seattle set an all-time record on Monday when temperatures reached 107 degrees. A spokesperson for the Washington Department of Health told BuzzFeed News that since June 25, there have been 1,792 emergency department visits reported by hospitals for suspected heat-related illness across the state. Nearly 400 of those led to an inpatient admission and nearly 40% of patients seen for suspected heat-related illness were 65 years and older.
Seattle Fire Department spokesperson Kristin Tinsley told BuzzFeed News there have been “many sleepless nights for our on-duty crews who work 24-hour shifts.”
“We first set the record on June 27 for the busiest day of Seattle Fire medical and fire responses, 386 responses, and then a day later on June 28, we broke the record again with 544 responses,” they added.
Kevin Mundt with the Seattle Human Services Department told BuzzFeed News that of the 118 combined heat-related medical responses between June 26 and June 28, 11% were for unhoused people. The median age for heat-related medical responses was 67 years old, and most involved older people overheating in indoor living quarters, he added.
“Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to gain access to [cool places],” Srinivasan said. “Lots of people in Seattle decided to pick a mini staycation and go get a hotel room for the weekend. Now, that's great for the people who are able to do that, to have the resources to be able to do that, but unfortunately not everyone is able to do that.”
Raging wildfires spurred by the record-setting temperatures and drought paint an even grimmer picture in the Northwest down into California. On Thursday, more than 1,200 firefighters attacked the Lava fire near Mount Shasta, which had grown to nearly 24,000 acres.
Lytton, British Columbia, was almost entirely razed by a fast-moving wildfire Wednesday, forcing most of the town’s 1,000 residents to flee in record heat that hit 121 degrees.
And in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown declared a state of emergency in response to the 10,000-acre Wrentham Market fire, the Statesman Journal reported. Another blaze, the Sunset Valley Fire, broke out Thursday near the Dalles, burning brush and wheat and causing evacuations and road closures.
Brown said in a statement on Wednesday that a large portion of the state was in extreme fire danger, and she readied every possible resource to combat the blazes.
“There's a very real chance that we're going to get more of these in the future,” Srinivasan said of the climate crisis. “And these aren't going to be surprise isolated heat waves: ‘Oh my god, once in a century.’ I think this is going to be ‘Cool, it's that time of year again,’ where this happens every year now.”