A heat wave paralyzing huge swaths of British Columbia has stretched emergency services in several municipalities to the brink — in one case, Vancouver firefighters have waited 11 hours for an ambulance crew to arrive and transport an elderly person suffering heat exhaustion to the hospital.
Just before noon Tuesday, firefighters were still waiting.
“We’re experiencing probably the busiest 48 hours we’ve had on record,” says Assistant Chief Ken Gemmill at Vancouver Fire Rescue Services. VFRS later confirmed it’s seeing a three-fold increase in call volume over the last few days.
The night before, Gemmill says the department had every vehicle out of the department’s fire halls and on-call, with most of the demand driven by people suffering heat illnesses.
While an 11-hour-and-counting wait is an extreme, on many other calls firefighters waited for an ambulance for over six hours, says Gemmill.
The waits have been so long many residents have showed up at fire stations across Vancouver begging for first responders to attend to their loved ones.
“I know that the public is getting frustrated. I know with this extreme heat there’s not enough personnel to go around,” says Gemmill. “We’re experiencing some desperate measures by our citizens for sure.”
BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) has seen a 25 to 50 per cent spike in ambulance dispatches across the province over the last several days, says Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of British Columbia.
Clifford, who leads the union representing paramedics, says pressure has been building on ambulance crews for months. When the heat wave hit, he says staffing shortages of up to 25 per cent combined with a spike in demand.
“There are hundreds of calls waiting to be dispatched right now,” he says. “What we’re facing is an incredible crisis.”
It’s a crisis Clifford says could have been mitigated had BCEHS planned for what climate scientists have been saying all along — that hotter, drier summers would become the new normal.
“We know we’re going to face floods, fires,” he says. “We should have been planning for it a long time ago. It’s not unpredictable.”
“I say there needs to be accountability from the leadership at BCEHS.”
Glacier Media reached out to the BCEHS asking about the alleged delays and lack of staffing but did not receive a response by publication time.
SPIKE IN SUDDEN DEATHS
Fire and ambulance crews aren’t the only emergency services seeing an uptick in demand because of the heat wave.
RCMP detachments in some of the province’s biggest municipalities have reported a spike in sudden deaths in recent days.
In Burnaby, police responded to 34 deaths between Monday morning and Tuesday morning; in Surrey, RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Elenor Sturko confirmed they had recorded 38 sudden deaths over less than 36 hours, far higher than the two to five reported on an average day.
In Vancouver, a police spokesperson said officers have responded to 65 sudden deaths since Friday but that its tally is “changing by the hour as people are sadly discovering loved ones.”
By Tuesday afternoon, VPD said it had deployed dozens of extra officers as a massive surge in 911 calls had “depleted front-line resources and severely delayed response times throughout the city.”
“Vancouver has never experienced heat like this, and sadly dozens of people are dying because of it,” says VPD Sgt. Steve Addison in a written statement. “Our officers are stretched thin, but we’re still doing everything we can to keep people safe.”
B.C.'s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the service had received a massive uptick in reports of death where extreme heat was thought to play a factor.
From Friday to Monday, 233 deaths were reported, a 79 per cent increase from the 130 deaths the BC Coroners Service receives over a normal four-day period. That number is expected to increase as more data rolls in, says Lapointe.
What caused the rise in deaths hasn’t been confirmed yet. But if connected to the record heat wave, the spike would be unprecedented.
Between 2010 and May 2021, the BC Coroners Service closed three investigations where the cause of death was determined to be heat exposure, a spokesperson told Glacier Media last month.
LAG TIME MEANS MORE TO COME
The rising human toll of the current heat wave comes on the heels of a staggering number of temperature records stretching across the Pacific Northwest and into the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
By Tuesday morning, 51 communities in B.C. had broken heat records over the last several days — including in Lytton, a town that as of Monday carries Canada’s all-time temperature record of 47.9 C.
Drought conditions have been building across much of western North America for months now. But the latest heat wave is something else: a heat dome usually sitting on top of the U.S. southwest has expanded northward with unprecedented intensity and duration.
That all lines up with climate change models, which show B.C. suffering deepening summer drought conditions and searing temperatures, with winters dominated by more extreme rainfall events.
“There’s already a baseline to 1.2 degrees warming since the Industrial Revolution,” says Armel Castellan, a warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment Canada.
“Anthropogenic climate change definitely has its fingerprints on this event.”
As the extreme temperatures migrate east toward Alberta, temperatures on B.C.’s South Coast have started to fall. In its path, Castellan says it’s expected to leave a trail of lightning strikes, upping the chance of wildfire ignitions in the B.C. Interior.
“It’s not that we’re going to be going back to seasonal normals,” warns Castellan. “We’re still five to 10 degrees above normal.”
Castellan says above-seasonal average temperatures are predicted to continue through the summer and into September. The even more immediate worry, he says, are lingering health effects in seniors, children and the chronically ill.
“There is a documented lag time between mortalities and the strongest heat. The impacts are delayed three or four days,” he says. “The worst is not over.”
By Tuesday morning, that lag time prompted Vancouver to activate its emergency centre so resources can be redirected where they are needed most.
Vancouver Fire Rescue currently has 142 firefighters in service and has added two medical trucks to its fleet over the last 24 hours.
Still, says Gemmill, “We’re sitting at calls for an excessive amount of time.”
“We’re still in the middle of it.”
PROTECT YOUR FELLOW CITIZENS
B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie says she's concerned about the reported lag times in emergency response.
“We’ll have to sort out what is happening with 911,” she says. “But my major concern is seniors in the community… people who live alone in apartments that overheat. They’re big greenhouses.”
“Go and get cold compresses on them, get them into a shower, get liquids in them and get them to the emergency department if you have to.”
Gemmill echoed that call, asking residents to step up and take care of a neighbour or family member to take pressure off firefighters and ambulance crews.
“There are a lot of people in this city who can’t take care of themselves and they rely on emergency services,” he says.
“We’re treading water to keep this city safe.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated from its original version with a statement from the BC Coroners Service.
Stefan Labbé is a solutions journalist. That means he covers how people are responding to problems linked to climate change — from housing to energy and everything in between. Have a story idea? Get in touch. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.