The heat dome that killed 619 people two years ago was the deadliest and one of the costliest disasters in B.C.’s history and pushed critical infrastructure to the limit, pointing to various gaps in the province’s ability to respond.
Those are among the conclusions of an independent report commissioned by the provincial government and released this month.
But the report also finds that government has made important changes to how it will manage future disasters, while urging additional improvements.
The report from the Canadian Climate Institute identifies the heat wave between June 25 and 30, 2021 as the deadliest disaster in provincial history.
“We estimate that avoiding these deaths has an economic value of $5.5 billion dollars when based on the [value of a statistical life],” the authors note. “We also found that health-care costs attributed to the heat wave amounted to $12 million.”
These figures make for uncomfortable reading but only hint at the incalculable toll of the disaster, which hit different regions and different groups differently.
“The vast majority of people who died in the 2021 heat wave were exposed to extreme temperatures in homes without functional mechanical cooling,” the report reads. “In addition, areas with a lot of asphalt and concrete surfaces and a lack of tree cover — often in socially and materially deprived neighbourhoods — experienced some of the hottest outdoor and indoor temperatures.”
The heat wave also pushed critical infrastructure in areas such transportation, power generation and health to the limit.
“During the heat wave, a number of hospitals became dangerously hot and had critical equipment outages,” the report states.
While B.C. did not experience widespread power outages, local outages “suggest the potential for major system disruption.” Such outages would not only impact utilities and businesses, but also create the risk air conditioners, heat pumps, chillers and fans will fail when people need them most.
The heat wave also threatened workers’ safety, lowered productivity and cut agricultural production by $25 million, the report finds, with the proviso that the outcomes could have been worse when compared to other disasters.
“While not catastrophic, these impacts are significant and highlight the importance of protecting workers across all industries and, in particular, preparing B.C.’s agricultural sector for more frequent extreme heat,” it says.
The report also finds that provincial institutions and policies were not designed to effectively respond to an event like the heat wave and that the current approach to reviewing and understanding disasters has not been optimal.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province took immediate action to protect people from the effects of extreme heat in the future.
“While we continue to strengthen our heat preparedness, the recent report from the Canadian Climate Institute covers a range of topics that have been comprehensively reviewed by experts — such as the Coroner and BC Centre for Disease Control — and acted on by the [province] over the past two years,” he said.
Looking at the government’s response to specific recommendations, the province has taken steps to make an estimated 8,000 portable air conditioners available to vulnerable residents over the next three years, along with other related measures.
The province is also factoring heat-related risk into infrastructure decisions and is considering a proposal that all new residential buildings provide one living space that is designed not to exceed 26 C in temperature as part of an updated building code coming into effect in December 2023.
Government is also factoring in heat-related concerns when building new infrastructure, such as renewing and expanding long-term care facilities.
New alerts, an extreme heat preparedness guide and nearly $2 billion in funding for First Nations and municipalities have also come available in response to the recommendation that businesses and employers receive the tools and information they need to protect themselves and their employees from extreme heat.
Steps have also been taken to ensure a co-ordinated provincial response to future events and the government plans to introduce an updated Emergency Program Act this fall with a focus on disaster risk reduction, emergency preparedness, recovery, and climate adaptation.
Dix also pointed out that the provincial government is strengthening the ambulance service and has launched a human resource strategy to add more health-care staff throughout B.C.
The report from the Canadian Climate Institute joins other findings, such the BC Coroner’s independent death panel review, in assessing the heat wave and making recommendations.
“We are pleased to share that the [province] has completed, or made significant progress on, all recommendations provided by the BC Coroner’s independent death panel review,” Dix said.
“Experts advise us that we’re in a better place than we were in 2021. There’s no doubt that we’re going to continue facing extreme heat events in the future — and we’ll continue to take action to build on this work to keep people safe.”