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Extreme summer heat prompts safety plan

By Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Published 4:37 PDT, Fri October 8, 2021

The heat wave experienced across B.C. this summer was unprecedented.

Temperatures recorded at Vancouver International Airport exceeded 30 degrees Celsius several times in June. Coupled with the summer’s poor air quality—the result of forest fires burning across the province—the heat created challenges for many B.C. communities.

In Richmond, a potential new plan is aiming to tackle extreme heat events or poor air quality advisories by specifying actions to be taken at the city level to keep people safe.

“The initial process (of creating a plan) was because of the number of deaths related to the sudden heat, and the fact that people could not get relief,” says Coun. Bill McNulty, who chairs the community safety committee.

A report, developed by city staff and led by deputy fire chief Jim Wishlove, will be discussed by city council members next week.

A July statement from B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe showed 569 people lost their lives due to heat between June 20 and July 29. Lapointe said this number is a 300 per cent increase over the number of deaths during the same period in previous years. Seventy-nine per cent of those who died were aged 65 or older.

At July’s community safety committee meeting, city staff were referred to look at ways to incorporate heat wave planning into the city’s emergency management plan. In a staff report included in the committee meeting agenda, staff note that while Richmond didn’t experience the same level of impacts as some jurisdictions, vulnerable populations are often impacted by extreme heat events.

“People that are at higher risk include individuals experiencing homelessness; seniors (particularly those homebound); small children; people who work or exercise outdoors; and those with health problems (addiction problems, breathing difficulties, heart conditions, and/or mental illness),” the staff report says.

The Hot Weather and Poor Air Quality Plan identifies two levels of heat, dependent on the type of alert issued by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

A Level 1 heat warning is when two or more days and nights are forecast to have overnight temperatures of no lower than 16 degrees Celsius, and daytime highs of at least 29 degrees Celsius. Communication will help people find city-operated facilities where they can find relief from the heat, as well as encourage them to check on others who may be more vulnerable and need help.

A Level 2 heat warning is when the average of a day’s temperature and the following day’s forecasted high is 31 degrees Celsius at Vancouver International Airport, or 36 degrees Celsius at Abbotsford Airport. In that case, in addition to the Level 1 measures city staff will also open and operate enhanced cooling and air quality centres, as well as co-ordinating distribution of water to vulnerable populations. 

McNulty says Richmond Fire-Rescue will take the lead on activating the emergency plans. Teams can mobilize quickly, and in many cases the only cost is staff time. 

“You can’t put a price on public safety,” he adds.

The city could staff buildings overnight if necessary. Roving ambassadors help to inform people who are unhoused and may not see messaging about how to find assistance.

City spokesperson Clay Adams says staff also reaches out to organizations and agencies that have access to vulnerable populations, including Vancouver Coastal Health.

“We could look at, in an upcoming scenario, transportation to a hot weather centre,” says Adams. 

He adds that some agencies have buses that could be used, or the city could provide a means of transportation. While this plan is not firm yet, it has been raised as a possibility that could be implemented quickly.

“The important thing is getting people to feel that there is an option for them out there, that is reaching them in their homes,” says Adams.

“Hopefully next time, should we have another severe heat scenario, we will all be much better prepared for whatever it might look like.”

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