Handling deadly heat waves

KPU instructors say more action needs to be taken to mitigate the dangers of climate change

A general map of the current fires as shown on the Government of B.C. Wildfire Dashboard. (Kristen Frier)

A general map of the current fires as shown on the Government of B.C. Wildfire Dashboard. (Kristen Frier)

Angela Gopal was one of the many British Columbians who suffered from a heat stroke during the unprecedented record-shattering heat wave from June 25 to July 1.  

 When Gopal was walking home on the Front Street overpass in New Westminster after eating dinner with friends, her face started dripping with sweat uncontrollably. She began to lose her sight and grabbed onto the barriers of the overpass. A moment later, Gopal passed out on the sidewalk. Her friend picked her up and ran to the nearest shady spot.  

“This is the first time something like this ever happened to me,” says Gopal. “Having that kind of experience, it put me in a whole new place.”

During that week, more than 800 people died in the province, and B.C. Emergency Health Services saw 187 calls for heat exhaustion and 52 calls related to heatstroke.  

By definition, a heat wave is three or more days in a row of high temperatures reaching 32 degrees celsius or more, according to HealthLinkBC.

In addition to the death toll and the high number of emergency calls, people living in Lytton, a small town in B.C.’s interior, saw record-breaking temperatures for three days in a row, with the highest reaching 49.6 C. In the late evening on June 30, more than 1,000 people were forced to evacuate the area due to a forest fire which eventually burned down 90 per cent of the entire town.  

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has recently hired a team of investigators to find the cause of the fire in Lytton. According to the board, a train might have caused the fire.  

 Kwantlen Polytechnic University instructor Paul Richard, who is a part of the Environmental Protection Technology program, says, “Even though it seems to be a human source that sparked the fire, the conditions that led to the fire are because of the heat wave.”  

 “An artificial fire would never have been as bad weeks ago,” says Richard.  

 Although the public doesn’t know the exact reason why the fire in Lytton began, Richard says the frequency and the extent of heat waves are connected to climate change. When the heat wave occurred, a large high-pressure heat dome formed, trapping hot ocean air under the atmosphere like a lid or cap, which caused extremely hot temperatures.

Richard says the heat dome occurred because of an “Omega blocking pattern,” an air current that takes the shape of the Greek letter Omega.  

Once hot air is trapped, it sinks to the ground and creates a bubble-like barrier that keeps the heat near the ground. The barrier keeps out rain clouds that would help keep the affected area cool. 

When a heat wave occurs, Richard says plenty of damage can happen, such as dangerous temperatures, drought, poor air quality from forest fires, and living creatures having limited to no access to clean drinking water.  

“It’s not to say that we don’t have solutions, we have plenty. It’s a matter of moving in the right direction and trying to avoid the worst,” says Richard. 

“For places like Vancouver, it’s as if we were waiting for it to happen to us as it did before we started really looking at the data.”  

Richard says he wishes more people knew about how important green spaces and trees are, especially during heat waves. Trees are not only able to absorb carbon emissions, but they also help cool surrounding temperatures. A single tree on a sunny day can have the cooling power of more than 10 air-conditioning units, according to U.N. climate research.

“At the same time, chopping down old-growth forests in B.C. is really, really going in the wrong direction because big trees really help keep things cool,” Richard says.

Lytton is now empty and dry with poor air quality conditions. KPU political science instructor Ross Pink says that heat waves and climate change will become more severe over time.

“There’s certain impacts of climate change that are unavoidable,” says Pink.  

“What we’re seeing in British Columbia right now is regional drought in the interior, every year will get a little bit worse. Some years it might be mild, but overall, the heat in the interior of British Columbia is going to get a little bit worse every year,” he says.

In 2018, Pink wrote a book called “The Climate Change Crisis: Solutions and Adaptation for a Planet in Peril” which focuses on how communities worldwide will respond to the climate crisis.    

He said the “increased frequency of heat wave episodes have an impact upon health, water resources, water security, farming capacity and land use.”  

Some consequences of heat waves are increased air pollution, such as higher levels of ground-level ozone, more growth of pollen and spores by plants, and increased contamination of drinking water by the runoff from heavy rainfall.  

Pink says if humans are causing climate change, they can help with fighting the climate crisis. 

Samuel Alec, who lives in the surrounding area of Lytton, says the community of Kamloops has come together to help those who have been affected by the fire. 

On July 3, Alec attended and helped spread awareness about his community donating clothing, food, water, blankets and gift cards to the Moccasin Square Gardens in Kamloops.

“We need to continue to have lots of dialogue and to support each other,” Tk’emlups te Secwepemc councillor Thomas Blank said in a press release. “We have some highly sensitive issues in TteS right now, and we are raw, to say the least, but we are doing our best and focusing our very limited resources in a way that can be most impactful to the most people.”  

“I wanted to show the people that there is somewhere to go. It’s not very much, but at least it’ll put a little bit of gas in their tank, they can go to the Save-On and get a little bit of groceries. There’s a lot of clothing, and at least it’s a little bit of something to put in a duffel bag to say, ‘Okay, I’ve got a change of clothes for tomorrow,'” says Alec.  

Alec is part of the Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation community, also known as West Pavilion, and says he’s mourning the loss of his hometown and family members in Lytton who have lost their homes due to the fire.  

“My home community, West Pavilion, has burned down, and our church, old cabins that our ancestors were born in all have burned down to nothing,” says Alec. “When a community loses everything, our spirits are hurt.” 

With Alec and other families in the B.C. interior facing the challenges of forest fires, Richard and Pink say the harm caused by heat waves is tied up with environmental and social and economic problems.  

“You have two crises at the same time, but the causes seem to be overlapping,” says Richard. 

“What about the people who don’t have as much financial means? What is their situation [and] their vulnerability?” 

Before Gopal had a heatstroke, she had one small fan in her basement apartment. In order to keep herself cool, she needed to find another one. However, fans and air conditioning units were sold out everywhere.  

In B.C., retail spaces sold out of fans and A.C. units in a matter of hours and re-sell places such as Facebook Marketplace were selling them for as much as $2,000 — three to four times the retail price.   

Gopal luckily found a fan through her father, but others weren’t as lucky.  

If people couldn’t find a fan or A.C. unit, the next place to go was a hotel. In Vancouver, listings of hotel rooms were sold out or almost near full capacity.  

Cities throughout Metro Vancouver provided cooling centres for those who needed relief from the extreme heat.  

“People forget we live in a west coast rainforest, so we’re not used to this kind of weather. People are really struggling,” says Pink. 

“I live in Burnaby, and we hit 40 degrees one day. That’s unbelievable. I was driving home last week, during the peak of the heat wave from downtown, and I looked at my car thermometer, and it said [it was] 47 degrees. I couldn’t believe it.”

Vet clinics and pet owners saw their pets feel affected by the heat as well. Rylee Maxwell, who lives in a condo in Surrey, was worried for Kimmy, her pet rabbit.  

“I didn’t care about me getting warm because I knew I could take a cold shower to cool off, but I was so worried about [Kimmy],” says Maxwell. “I was able to get one of the last air conditioners at Rona. I just needed literally anything to make it a tiny bit cooler for me and Kimmy.” 

Although there have been social and economic problems due to the heat wave, Pink and Richard say there are solutions to the climate crisis. Richard says trying to move towards more organic farming can also help reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

Pink says KPU has two major goals: increasing Indigenous education, and promoting sustainable knowledge and education on campus.  

“There is an intersection between environment and First Nations issues because First Nations culture traditionally is very focused upon land and respecting the land,” says Pink.  

In the KPU Sustainability Plan report, their goal is to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Pink says responsible, successful steps we can take to mitigate climate change and extreme heat with responsible green policies include investing in water harvesting and solar and wind power.  

“We can’t overcome climate change, but we can mitigate it,” says Pink. 

“Climate change is going to be with us for our lifetimes, and our kids’ lifetime and grandkids’ lifetimes. However, we can mitigate it by responsible policy.”  

Now that the heat wave has ended for the time being, Maxwell says the extreme weather has made her think more about climate change and how we will adapt for the future.  

“I’m kind of worried that it’s going to happen again,” says Maxwell. 

“Government change needs to happen and not only recognize that global warming is real, but also take steps to protect people like making air conditioners part of building codes, because even if it’s not reversible, it’s something that we can do to help protect ourselves.”