A historic heatwave has swept through Squamish, breaking records, closing schools and businesses, and triggering rockfalls and flooding.
It’s the most extreme heat the town has ever seen, with records being shattered three consecutive days in a row, from Saturday to Monday.
On June 26, the record fell for the first time.
With temperatures at 39 C, the 38-C record that was established back in September 1988 was broken.
The next day, high temperatures would surpass themselves again, with Squamish hitting 41.2 C.
Finally, on Monday, blistering temperatures of 43 C toppled the record set on Sunday.
And Squamish was not alone. All across B.C., local records were being broken, and, in Lytton, the all-time high for the entire country was shattered thrice in a row on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.
As of press time on Tuesday, thermometers in Lytton were reading at 49.6 C — a temperature that even outrivalled the all-time high for Las Vegas, which stands at 47.2 C.
Squamish meteorologist Jason Ross said he’s never seen anything like it.
And while he noted that he is not a climatologist, it seems to point to a worrying trend.
“There’s certainly a general consensus that this has the fingerprints of climate change all over it. It’s a really incredible setup to have this many temperature records broken across the province all at one time — it’s absolutely incredible,” said Ross.
“Sure, we get a heatwave where we can have a single day [where] temperature records [are] broken. All-time records, sure, here and there. But to have all-time records broken for day after day, three days in a row — very unusual.”
The chances of an event happening like this are very low, he said.
Ross said that by one measure it is rarer than a once-in-a-1,000-year event.
Ross describes a heat dome, which is being blamed for the spiking temperatures, as a mountain of warm air built into a very wavy jet stream, with extreme undulations. Under these circumstances, pressure systems can become stalled or stuck in unusual places. In Squamish’s case, a ridge of high pressure, which is the heat dome, was lodged over the Pacific Northwest and B.C., acting as a block in the atmosphere, not allowing the weather to move, he said.
Heat domes have sinking air, which is compressed and heated.
The effects in town were dramatic.
Stawamus Chief rockfall
On Sunday, a massive rockfall occurred at the Grand Wall of the Stawamus Chief, near the iconic Split Pillar route.
Many suspect that the extreme heat that day was at least a contributing factor, as studies by the United States Geological Survey found that granite can expand in such conditions, causing stress and breakage.
Squamish Fire Rescue was called to the scene, as the tumbling rock kicked up so much dust that it was called in as smoke from a wildfire.
Firefighters reported that there didn’t appear to be any people injured from the fall.
Since then, BC Parks announced a closure of the Grand Wall climbing area and the immediate boulder and trail networks below.
The closure will remain in place until hazard assessments are completed.
Around the same time, flooding was reported in the Squamish Valley area, as rapid glacial melt caused rivers to spill over. Up in Pemberton, the effects of this were particularly dramatic, triggering evacuation orders that have since been rescinded.
Walking through town during the worst of the heatwave, it was not an uncommon sight to see a parade of darkened stores and ‘Closed’ signs. Many people lacked air conditioning, and, as a result, felt it safer to shut down rather than continue on their regular business. On Monday, the Sea to Sky School District closed its schools in Squamish and throughout the corridor, saying it was a challenge to keep students and staff in reasonable conditions.
School district officials asked parents to keep their children at home, but kept staff at the school for those who were unable to make last-minute arrangements.
The Sea to Sky Gondola also announced that it would shut down its operations on June 27, citing the extreme heat.
At the time, it said that it hoped to reopen on June 30.
Protecting the vulnerable
While nobody is immune to the record-setting temperatures Squamish has seen in recent days, it’s often a community’s most vulnerable who bear the brunt of the impacts.
“By and large, we often see greater risk or more vulnerability within our homeless population, those that can’t access shelter or are unable to access shelter for various issues or complexities that they have, whether that’s mental health, injury, addiction, and so on,” explained Jaye Russell, executive director of the Sea to Sky Community Services Society (SSCSS).
To help beat the heat, the District of Squamish has set up cooling centres at the Brennan Park Recreation Centre as well as The 55 Activity Centre.
For social-service providers like SSCSS, half the battle is often making sure residents are aware of the resources available to them in times of crisis.
“Whether it’s a heatwave, whether it’s a health pandemic or whether it’s any natural disaster, there are certain levels of crisis and physical and personal pressures people are feeling, especially if they can’t abate from the heat,” she said.
“For those who are already struggling with mental health and addiction issues, even those who are economically disadvantaged, it’s points like this where people feel like there’s an added weight to an already challenging time in their life.”
According to the 2021 Homeless Point in Time Count, taken April 28 and 29, there are 107 recorded homeless in Squamish, 83 of whom are unsheltered (meaning those residing in places unfit for human habitation such as parks, bus depots, etc.) while 24 are sheltered (meaning they have access to a shelter). With climate change expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather events, Russell said it’s likely “we’re going to be needing more opportunities for cooling spaces and [access] to shelter if those numbers continue to increase.”
Search and rescue
As crowds descended on local waterways to escape the heat this weekend, Squamish Search and Rescue (SSAR) surprisingly did not see a major uptick in calls.
“It was a pretty quiet weekend,” said search manager B.J. Chute.
On Saturday, June 26, when, on the flight back from what turned out to be a false alarm at Lucille Lake, SSAR detoured to Taylor Meadows to assist Whistler Search and Rescue and Squamish Fire Rescue with a medical evacuation. SSAR collaborated on a high-angle rescue of a fallen climber with lower leg injuries, before he was handed over to paramedics. Squamish also assisted the RCMP on Monday after an estimated 15 people were thought to be stranded throughout the Squamish Valley due to the road washout caused by flooding.
“Squamish SAR did a reconnaissance flight up there to assess how many people and to what extent they were stranded,” Chute said, adding that all of the individuals were eventually accounted for and indicated they were prepared to wait until the road was clear.
Although the scorching temperatures did not result in a spike in calls, there’s no denying the risk such extreme weather can place on SAR volunteers.
“It does make the response more complicated and obviously more hazardous for the SAR members who are exposed to those elements and oftentimes under heavy physical exertion, with no shade. It is a concern of ours,” Chute said.
“I feel like we’re not seeing the effect in our responses yet but certainly with the heat, we are taking extra precautions to ensure that when and if we have to respond that our members are as protected as possible.”
SSAR has been engaged on 61 tasks so far this year, compared with 35 by this point in 2020, and 32 in 2019.