In the wake of an unprecedented heat wave that claimed hundreds of lives in British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province now faces a new threat.
More than 100 forest fires are burning across the province as of Thursday night, 86 of which have started in the past two days. Evacuation orders and alerts have been issued in a dozen communities. Premier John Horgan has hinted that the crisis could become severe enough for the Canadian military to be deployed.
There was a similar picture in the western United States. Hundreds of firefighters have battled in intense heat against several wildfires in the forests of far northern California, where the flames have already forced many communities to evacuate.
Mount Shasta, the volcano that dominates the region, was shrouded in a haze of smoke plumes so huge on Thursday that they could easily be seen in weather satellite images in space.
In British Columbia, it was to be a week of provisional celebration – Thursday was the day the province’s Covid-19 state of emergency was lifted. But now the province is likely to face a new state of emergency because of the wildfires.
“Absolutely, we may well, depending on the start of the fire season, require a provincial state of emergency as we have seen in our last five seasons in this province,” said Minister of Public Safety of the province, Mike Farnworth.
In the small village of Lytton, where a wildfire struck with such fury that residents had only minutes to evacuate, an unknown number of residents were still missing on Friday. Community Facebook groups were replete with messages from residents desperate to locate their missing loved ones.
The Vancouver Sun reported that at least two people died trying to take shelter in a hole in the ground as the blaze raged.
In the days leading up to the fire itself, Lytton set national heat records for three consecutive days until Tuesday, when the mercury hit an infernal 49.5 ° C (121.1 ° F), baking practically all the moisture in the area.
Horgan said “anecdotal” reports suggested the blaze may have been started by a wandering spark thrown by a freight train into the dry grass near town. However, he warned that a formal investigation would be needed to determine the precise cause.
Lytton’s hell and the heat wave that preceded it were the result of a so-called “heat dome” – a weather phenomenon where a high pressure ridge traps and compresses hot air, raising temperatures. and baking the area. While it’s not unheard of, climatologists say thermal domes like this will become more common and intense due to climate change.
British Columbia Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said her office received reports of at least 486 “sudden and unexpected deaths” between June 25 and Wednesday. Normally, she said about 165 people would die in the province over a five-day period.
Thanks to BC’s generally moderate climate, many homes do not have air conditioning. When thermometers soared, those who could escaped to nearby beaches and icy mountain coves to seek relief.
Many of those who couldn’t were forced inside, seeking refuge in city-run cooling stations, sprinklers and misters installed in the city, and even resorted to sleeping in t- wet shirts.
In downtown Vancouver, many of the city’s most marginalized communities have suffered the brunt of the wrath of the heatwave in one-room hotels and other stuffy public housing, or have gathered in back alleys and the doors, looking for any shade they could find.
Community activist Angel Gates said that although she had her own air conditioning unit to keep her and her friends cool, most of the building did not. “It was so hot,” she said. “There were ambulances all the time. “
At Vancouver’s Overdose Prevention Society, a supervised drug use site in the city’s downtown core, manager Trey Helton said workers processed 14 cases of bottled water in three hours. “We’ve had a lot of people passing out from heat exhaustion, trying to put them in the shade and basically just a lot of 911 calls,” Helton said.