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COLUMN: As deadly heat wave anniversary nears, are we any more prepared?

Now is the time for municipalities to inform its residents what to do and where to go in heat waves
On one of the hottest days of the summer, June 28, families gathered at Lake of the Woods along Highway 1 for some respite from the heat. And this reporter walked in fully clothed. (Jessica Peters/ Hope Standard file)

We are running up very close to the anniversary of last year’s heat wave in southern B.C.

It may not feel like it, what with the dreary skies and cool breezes still whipping down valleys, and even recent snowfall on local mountains. But it’s coming.

The heat wave of 2021 is memorable in many ways, and mostly not good. It felt like the Fraser Canyon would spontaneously combust as the temperatures neared 50C. And in November 2021, the B.C. Coroner released a report that 600 British Columbians died due to heat that summer.

Personally, I was surprised to tolerate the heat better than ever. But there were several days when I fled the office in Hope, where the air conditioning was broken, and walked straight into Lake of the Woods in my work clothes. I could almost hear my skin sizzle in the cool, healing water.

My clothes were dry by the time I got back to my desk.

It’s hard to imagine plunking into a cold lake in just a few weeks. But now that we’re into June, it’s likely that the spring season will turn to summer. Those clouds will clear and there will be days when all we can think of is dipping a toe or more into a river, lake, or the ocean.

Thankfully, Environment Canada seems to be forecasting normal seasonal temperatures for the Fraser Valley. But they are forecasting a hotter than average summer for eastern provinces, and forecasts are always subject to change.

What is known for sure is that these hot summers are turning deadly. And it just takes one or two scorching hot days to cause real problems for people, animals and the forests.

Despite warnings from climate specialists like meteorologists, we as a society were caught off guard by the searing heat. There were few ways for the most vulnerable to find life-saving relief. Organizations and municipalities scrambled to create cooling centres, misting stations, and to open spaces up to the public.

They also scrambled to get the message out to people about where they could go for respite. And then there was the barrier of transportation to such centres, especially for low-income or disabled people.

Now we all have had nearly a year to better prepare for the emergency situation we faced. We’ve had that emergency and the follow-up disaster of landslides and flooding to show us that Mother Nature can easily best us. Just planning to go for a dip when it gets hot is not enough.

In Hope, a seniors group has taken the lead and is planning to build a cooling centre for the community centre. They’ve just been approved for a grant for a whopping $7,800. That’s a tiny price tag to potentially save a life.

We all need to ensure our most vulnerable have a place to go — even if that means keeping cooling centres open for just a few people who may trickle in.

And we need to ensure they know beforehand where they can go. We have to factor in power outages and telecommunications breakdowns that will make last-minute information difficult to send out and even harder to receive.

Most of us have a safety plan if our houses catch fire. We all have safety plans to evacuate our workplaces. We practice them, we go over them, and we adjust them. There are fines for businesses that don’t comply, because safety matters.

That is the level of preparation we need to have for these new-to-us public emergencies.

We need to know the plan, and now is the time to tell us.

Jessica Peters is a Black Press multimedia journalist working at The Abbotsford News.

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Jessica Peters

About the Author: Jessica Peters

I began my career in 1999, covering communities across the Fraser Valley ever since.
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