Millions of people in western Canada and the northwestern United States were under heat warnings on Wednesday as the region baked in record temperatures and police reported dozens of deaths likely related to the scorching conditions.
The heat wave has stretched emergency services, with at least 134 people having died suddenly in the Vancouver area since Friday, Canadian police said.
“The temperatures recorded this week are unprecedented – lives have been lost and the risk of wildfires is dangerously high,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
Correspondent Craig McCulloch reports from Vancouver
In the northwestern US city of Seattle, doctors reported a flood of heatstroke victims, and at least two patients — 65 and 68 years old — died of hyperthermia when their bodies overheated, according to the Seattle Times.
Rising temperatures in California’s valley, mountain and desert regions raised fears of wildfires amid windswept arid conditions, with thunderstorms capable of sparking fires in several parts of the western US.
President Joe Biden said during a virtual meeting with governors of western states that “the threat of wildfires in the west this year is as serious as ever.”
Recalling last year’s record wildfires that burned more than 10 million acres in the US and “caused orange skies that looked like the end of the day,” Biden warned that this year “could be even harder.”
Federal officials say fire season is already ahead of last year — the worst ever in drought-stricken California.
About 9,000 firefighters have already been deployed to fight fires in a dozen US states, most notably the Lava Fire in northern California, which scorched more than 17,000 acres.
Canada set a new all-time high for high temperatures on Tuesday for the third day in a row, reaching 49.5 degrees Celsius in Lytton, about 250 kilometers east of Vancouver, the country’s weather service, Environment Canada, reported.
Vancouver police said it had only responded to more than 98 sudden deaths since Friday, with the vast majority being “heat related”.
The city on the Pacific coast has had temperatures over 86 degrees Fahrenheit for several days — nearly 20 degrees above seasonal norms.
Some Vancouver residents said they had never experienced such temperatures.
“It’s never been this bad. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said the resident, who gave her name only as Rosa.
“I hope it never happens again. This is too much.”
Others lamented that some residents were more vulnerable to the heat than others.
“I sympathize with those people, whether they’re the elderly or people who live in downtown east Vancouver and don’t have a cool place to live or sleep,” said river swimmer Graham Griedger.
Environment Canada said the heat wave in the city would ease from Wednesday, but unusually high temperatures would continue through the rest of the week.
‘Won’t be the last’
Record temperatures are becoming more common due to climate change. Globally, the decade to 2019 was the warmest on record, and the five warmest years have all occurred in the past five years.
“We’ve seen more and more of these extreme weather events in recent years. So realistically, we know this heat wave won’t be the last,” Trudeau said.
The scorching heat extending to Canada’s Arctic regions is attributed to a high-pressure “heat dome” that traps warm air in the region.
Temperatures in the U.S. Pacific Northwest cities of Portland and Seattle reached levels not seen since records began in the 1940s: 115 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland and 108 degrees in Seattle on Monday.
The Prime Minister of British Columbia, which includes Vancouver, said the “hottest week British Columbians have ever experienced” had disastrous consequences for families and communities.
John Horgan urged “checking those people we know are at risk, making sure we have cold packs in the fridge or that we stay in the coolest part of our house.”
The county’s chief medical officer reported “a significant increase in the number of reported deaths suspected of contributing to extreme heat”.
The agency said in a statement it recorded 233 deaths between Friday and Monday, compared to an average of 130.
The heat wave has forced schools and Covid-19 vaccination centers in the Vancouver area to close, while officials set up temporary water fountains and misting stations on street corners.
Cities in the western United States and Canada opened emergency cooling centers and field workers distributed bottles of water and hats.