Province feeling heat on hot weather emergency readiness

Written By Rob Shaw

Hot temperatures are rising across British Columbia, and that’s also raising the heat on whether the government is ready for another weather disaster.

The province is facing the first test of its response to dangerously hot weather since last year’s disastrous heat dome, which killed 619 people.

So far, it seems to be doing a remarkably better job in communicating with the public.

The government has been active on its social media feeds, alerting people to higher temperatures when they were first forecast last week, and in some cases this week sending daily updates about what to do, where to go and how to cope with the stifling weather.

On its own, that would perhaps be unremarkable. 

Signs of coordination

But you see clear signs of the coordination that was lacking last year between Environment Canada, the province, Emergency Management BC and municipalities.

Individual towns and cities are opening misting machines, cooling centres and drop-in facilities — which are then shared by the province on its large channels and then amplified by local MLAs through their constituency offices (with very little, if any, partisan politics involved at all).

Environment Canada has taken the lead in setting benchmarks for temperature thresholds that escalate responses. And the BC Ambulance Service has pledged to have extra staff on standby available to meet surge capacity if the heat becomes critical, lessening the immense wait times and strains on the 911 system.

Last year’s heat dome toll

All of that is a far cry from late June 2021 when the heat dome hit, sparking record temperatures and a last-minute scramble from local and provincial officials to explain to the public the risk of heat stroke and the facilities available to help.

B.C.’s coroners service found most of the people who died in the heat dome were elderly, lived alone and had no access to air conditioning. They often didn’t know they were at dangerous risk until it was too late. As the situation worsened, the province’s ambulance and 911 system became overwhelmed. 

Meanwhile, the NDP government appeared more concerned with reopening the economy from COVID-19 restrictions, and didn’t get a handle on the crisis until it was too late. 

B.C. has not seen another heat dome this year — so far.

A heat dome occurs when high pressure atmospheric conditions trap hot ocean air like a cap, creating a heat wave. [Graphic courtesy of NOAA]

The temperatures on this week’s heat wave are forecast to qualify as a “warning” under Environment Canada’s new guidelines, posted publicly and shared with the province by specialist meteorologists.

That falls short of what is now considered an “extreme heat emergency” — where temperatures have to hit certain levels during the day, depending on the part of the province, then also substantially increase over three consecutive days while failing to cool at night.

Alert ready system primed

If that threshold is reached this summer, it will trigger B.C.’s alert ready emergency notification system, which is designed to blast out alerts to nearby mobile devices while also cutting into radio and television feeds with safety messages.

B.C. drew widespread criticism for failing to use the alert ready system to send out safety warnings during last fall’s atmospheric river and flooding, as well as during the wildfire season. It was at the time the only province in Canada to have never used the system.

“We have put in place recommendations from the coroner’s report in terms of when heat warnings and… emergencies are communicated.”

Mike Farnworth

In response, Solicitor General Mike Farnworth pledged to have alert ready operational for heat and fires this summer. The trigger threshold has yet to be met, but if and when it does we will get a true glimpse at whether all the elements of B.C.’s communications overhaul can come together for an emergency.

“We have put in place recommendations from the coroner’s report in terms of when heat warnings and… emergencies are communicated,” Farnworth said this week when asked if B.C. was ready.

“The parameters around that have been put in place by experts and they’re based on both the daytime temperature and the night time temperature, and they vary down around different regions of the province… so those things are in place and those decisions are what guide the experts in terms of when it is time to issue an alert.”

So far, B.C.’s renewed focus on weather safety is holding. But the heat remains on the government to prove it’s up to the task this summer.