Documents offered guidelines, warned of deadly consequences ahead of B.C. heat wave

At least three separate reports warned health officials and local governments about the kind of heat waves that could cost lives in the Lower Mainland, but the analyses and documents appear to have been forgotten when they were needed most.

A CTV News Vancouver investigation has uncovered documents from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control with clear criteria for a “heat health emergency” established in the wake of the region’s last deadly heat wave in 2009. Health officials have not responded to queries about those warnings and others.

The most crucial document dates back to 2012. Authored by a BCCDC doctor and a researcher – both of whom also teach at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health – the document laid out a plan to prevent the kind of death toll they’d seen in the summer of 2009.

In “A Data-driven Approach to Setting Trigger Temperatures for Heat Health Emergencies,” Sarah Henderson and Dr. Tom Kosatsky recommended triggering a “heat health emergency” for Greater Vancouver when the temperature at Vancouver International Airport is forecast for 29 degrees or higher for two days or longer, and 34 degrees or higher at Abbotsford International Airport. 

The forecast on Friday, June 25, called for highs of 31 to 34 degrees in Vancouver from Saturday to Monday, with 36 to 40 degrees forecast inland, but there are no indications any health authority or the provincial health ministry declared a “heat health emergency” internally; they didn’t do so publicly.

“The plans call for actions such as modifying or cancelling outdoor public gatherings, allowing free access to public pools, opening cooling centres, and asking management of air conditioned buildings (malls, theatres, etc.) to maintain longer hours,” Kosatsky and Henderson wrote.

CTV News asked to speak with Health Emergency Management BC, which civic emergency planners indicated is the agency that could’ve initiated a more robust response for municipalities. HEMBC lists emergency response in its mandate online, but the Province Health Services Authority would not let CTV News speak with anyone at the organization and insisted Emergency Management BC was responsible.

Sources suggested the province’s top doctor could’ve declared a public health emergency to draw attention to the dangerous forecast, but when CTV News asked to speak to Dr. Bonnie Henry or Health Minister Adrian Dix on the issue, the health ministry said both were unavailable and never provided further information or response.

LITTLE APPETITE FOR HEAT PLANNING FROM POLITICIANS, HEALTH AUTHORITIES

In 2017, the BCCDC published another document titled “Municipal Heat Response Planning in British Columbia, Canada,” in which the authors reiterated the benchmarks from the 2012 analysis and further warned that a heat wave with high relative humidity that took place early in the summer before people’s bodies had had time to acclimate to hot temperatures and air pollution could have severe impacts on seniors, children, the poor and those facing social isolation, all of whom faced “increase risk of heat-related mortality.”

Furthermore, the authors found that despite the death toll in 2009, planning for heat waves wasn’t a big priority for most municipalities or health officials. 

“Some participants also noted that heat response may be ‘on the radar’ of staff and fire services, but not politicians,” they wrote. “Extreme heat was not considered a priority by any of the health authority participants … with the low perceived risk associated with extreme heat in their communities given the historically temperate conditions.”

In a planning document, also from 2017, the BCCDC suggested not only that municipalities should keep track of public air-conditioned buildings, but also that there should be free transportation to cooling shelters for the vulnerable.

“Municipalities may be able to provide temporary air conditioning to some buildings or mandate that apartment buildings have at least one communal air-conditioned room,” according to the planning document

There don’t appear to be any such measures implemented in Metro Vancouver, though Vancouver’s City Planning Commission has just made similar recommendations

2019 CLIMATE REPORT AND CALLS FOR AN INDEPENDENT REVIEW

The BC Liberal Party has unearthed a more recent report to the ministry of the environment that warned temperatures of 32 degrees and higher and lasting for a few days could result in 100 deaths and $100 million in economic damage

Titled “Preliminary Strategic Climate Risk Assessment for British Columbia,” the 429-page document devotes four pages to warnings that reiterated the 2012 report and others – pointing out that “heat waves can contribute to a range of medical conditions beyond fatalities when people are unable to maintain acceptable body temperatures.”

“The hardest part of reading that report is the fact it literally said that hundreds of people would likely be extremely vulnerable and potentially lose their lives," said Liberal leader Shirley Bond. “I think it's essential that we get some answers to what went wrong. How was that report handled when it was received by government? What work was done in the follow up to receiving that report?"

She referenced outrage from first responders at the late response to the heat wave from BC Emergency Health Services, as well as heartache felt by hundreds of families, as she demanded the province initiate an independent review of how the heat wave was prepared for and managed.

"Government should want the answers to those questions as well,” said Bond. “If there isn't a sense of urgency, there certainly should be. Hundreds of British Columbians lost their lives. A report was provided to the government in 2019 that laid out fairly graphically what would happen in the event of a heat wave of this nature."

URGENT CALLS FOR MORE PLANNING

Most municipalities in the Lower Mainland urged residents to seek out air-conditioned public facilities and many provided cooling centres, sprinklers and other measures for citizens to cool down, but these typical responses to a heat wave couldn’t prevent deaths as a record-breaking heat dome proved anything but typical. 

Surrey’s fire chief, who also heads up the city’s emergency response planning, says the city contacted BC Housing to inquire about overnight facilities for seniors, the disabled and vulnerable populations, since they’re responsible for weather shelter. BC Housing told CTV News they’re only responsible for providing accommodations for social housing they manage.

“That is something new (that) I think all local governments and the province need to consider if we're going to see more excessive heat waves,” said Larry Thomas of the idea of climate-controlled overnight facilities.

“In the Lower Mainland, we're not used to over-40-degree weather, so I think those discussions need to happen."

Whether anyone at B.C.’s health authorities or the Ministry of Health rejected the idea of a heat health emergency or considered it at all remains a mystery, given their refusal to respond to requests for comment.

But perhaps a clue can be found in the 2012 BCCDC report.

“Given the human and financial resources necessary to implement the action plans, the stakeholders made it clear that tolerance for false positive events (i.e., calling a heat health emergency during weather that was not unusually hot) would be low,” wrote the authors.

B.C. smashed dozens of temperature records and hundreds of people died during the heat wave, with a report expected from the BC Coroners Service once each death has been investigated.