Sudden deaths recorded during B.C.'s heat wave up to 719, coroners say

The number of sudden deaths recorded across British Columbia during the province's record-breaking heat wave has risen to 719, coroners said Friday.

The B.C. Coroners Service said the deaths, which were recorded over seven days, from June 25 through July 1, represent about three times the number that would normally be expected over the course of a week.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the extreme heat that has created tinder dry conditions and raised the fire danger rating across the province is believed to be a "significant contributing factor" in the fatalities.

"Some parts of the province are continuing to experience unusually high temperatures, and it remains important that we all take extra care to avoid the dangerous effects of severe heat. Please look out for family, friends and neighbours, particularly those who live alone," Lapointe said in a statement.

Many of the victims were seniors who were found alone in hot homes that were not well-ventilated.

Officials said the pace of sudden death reports has been slower heading into the weekend, and that they are hopeful that trend will continue as temperatures decline.

However, Lapointe also noted the current total is preliminary and still expected to increase as more reports are entered into the B.C. Coroners Service's system.

It's unclear how many of the 719 sudden deaths are directly related to the recent extreme weather, but officials are investigating each case to determine a precise death toll.

The government has also pledged to study what happened in the hopes of preventing such a staggering loss of life during future heat waves.

"The reality is we've never seen anything like this in B.C., and in fact the country, but especially in the Lower Mainland," Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said Wednesday.

"After we are past this, we will have to take a hard look at what we need to change for the future."

The highest temperatures in B.C. this week were recorded in Lytton, a village about 260 kilometres northeast of Vancouver that broke Canada's all-time heat record at 46.9 C one day before being wiped out by a fire that witnesses said engulfed the community in under 20 minutes.

The record-breaking heat, and the devastation left by Wednesday's fire, have left many British Columbians thinking about the ongoing impacts of climate change.

Climate experts have warned that more extreme weather – the kind that can leave tinder-dry conditions and elevate the fire danger across the province – is almost certainly in B.C.'s future.

"The foundation of our climate is changing, and we can expect more events of this type,” John Clague, earth science professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, told CTV News on Thursday.

"It’s not just that (the) climate’s going to get one or two degrees warmer on averages globally, it’s these extremes that we can expect that are driven by the total change in the climate system."

Many scientists agree there's still time to mitigate the impacts of climate change, however, provided there is sufficient political and public will to do so.

"There’s inertia in people’s behaviour that collectively poses a problem,” Clague said. "The longer we kind of put off being more proactive in dealing with the problem, the more adaptation is going to be required."

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Maria Weisgarber