Map over Canada¨s most western province, British Columbia
05 Jul 2021

Over 800 dead in historic Western Canada heat wave: Chaos at 911, town burned to the ground

Paramedic , firefighters and 911 dispatchers desperate as the wait times grew longer and longer

More than 800 people died from heatstroke or other sudden expected death between June 25 and July 1st in the province of British Columbia in Western Canada. The town of Lytton, BC, had almost 50 C three days in a row - On Wednesday, a wildfire burned every building in Lytton to the ground and residents were given only ten minutes to evacuate. 

The initial death count was 712, however as the authorities adjusted for delayed reporting and people dying  undiscovered in their homes, the final number well exceeded 800 people who perished in one way or another in connection with the heat wave in the Canadian province of British Columbia.   

The last weekend in June will be a historic time remembered for generations in Western Canada: the interior regions of British Columbia, Canada´s most Western province, had temperatures reaching almost 50 degrees Celsius ( 122 F)  several days in a row. But also Vancouver and other areas by the Pacific Ocean had temperatures reaching above 45 C /113 F in the shade. 

 

A thermometer showing 42 degrees C in the shade on Monday June 28 in White Rock, BC.
A thermometer showing 42 degrees C in the shade on Monday June 28 in White Rock, BC. Photo: Björn Ulfsson / CTIF

Chaotic conditions at 911 - Many waited 40 minutes or more to get through on the phone

This part of Canada is normally not affected by heat waves at this time of year and the population was not prepared. Along the coast, the spring and early summer had been rather cool and the sudden hot weather came as chock for a population who largely doesn´t have air conditioning installed in their homes.

With relatively high humidity levels that are normal for the region, the heat wave was felt even more. 

During the days following the worst heat, the media was reporting from the front line: paramedics and dispatchers at 911 (equivalent to 112 in Europe) spoke of their desperation as the volume of emergency calls vastly outnumbered the available resources. The number of heat related emergency calls skyrocketed and the normal wait time of maximum one minute to reach 911 grew longer and longer. 

Some callers waited as long as 40 minutes or more to get through on the phone, and then waited for several hours for the ambulance to come. Some took matters into their own hands and drove their elderly themselves to the emergency, often to be turned away due to lack of available space.     

The ambulance situation and catastrophic wait times at 911 has triggered a tense political discussion about preparedness in the province, especially since paramedics have tried to call attention to their lack of staff for several years. The death toll of the heat wave also vastly overshadows the loss of lives due to the Covid-19 pandemic in the province, which has just over 5 million inhabitants: In one week, 712 people died from the heat  wave, compared to just under 1800 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. 

 

712 dead from heat stroke or other sudden heat related complications

A total of 712 people (mostly elderly) died from heat related complications. That is about three times as many "sudden, unexpected" deaths as what is normally expected for the time period.

The town of Lytton, BC, had even greater misfortunes. After breaking the historic heat record of all time in Canada for three days in a row, Wednesday June 30 about 1000 residents were given ten minutes to evacuate their homes. Only moments later, a forest fire broke through and burned every single man made structure to the ground. 

By then, many areas along the coast had regained comfortable summer temperatures. However, some interior regions still struggles with unseasonal heat and smoke from numerous wildfires burning in the area.