• AFP-JIJI, Bloomberg

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At least 69 people in the Vancouver area have died in a record-smashing heat wave engulfing western Canada and the U.S. Pacific Northwest, police said Tuesday.

Most of the dead in the Vancouver suburbs of Burnaby and Surrey over the past 24 hours were older people or those with underlying health conditions, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said.

Other local municipalities said they too had responded to many sudden death calls since Monday, but have not yet released tolls.

"Although still under investigation, heat is believed to be a contributing factor in the majority of the deaths," RCMP Cpl. Michael Kalanj said in a statement.

Climate change is causing record-setting temperatures to become more frequent. Globally, the decade to 2019 was the hottest recorded, and the five hottest years have all occurred within the last five years.

Scorching heat stretching from the U.S. state of Oregon to Canada's Arctic territories has been blamed on a high-pressure ridge trapping warm air in the region.

On Monday, Canada set a new all-time high temperature record of 47.9 degrees Celsius in Lytton in British Columbia, about 250 kilometers east of Vancouver. The record was broken again Tuesday when the mercury hit 49.5 in Lytton.

Temperatures in the U.S. Pacific Northwest cities of Seattle and Portland, Oregon, reached levels not seen since record-keeping began in the 1940s: About 46 degrees in Portland and 42 in Seattle, according to the U.S. National Weather Service.

"I have never seen anything like this in my 40 years of forecasting,” said Paul Walker, a meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc. in State College, Pennsylvania.

Vancouver on the Pacific coast has for several days recorded temperatures above 30 degrees. Inland along the Fraser River delta, amid high humidity, climatologists said it felt like 44 degrees on Tuesday.

"We are in the midst of the hottest week British Columbians have ever experienced, and there are consequences to that — disastrous consequences for families and for communities," British Columbia Premier John Horgan told a news conference. "How we get through this extraordinary time is by hanging together."

He urged "checking up on those people we know might be at risk, making sure we have cold compresses in the fridge or we're staying in the coolest part of our homes, and making sure that we're taking steps to get through this heat wave."

Environment Canada has issued alerts for British Columbia, Alberta and parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, saying the "prolonged, dangerous and historic heat wave will persist through this week."

The U.S. National Weather Service issued a similar warning, urging people to "stay in air-conditioned buildings, avoid strenuous outdoor activities, drink plenty of water, and check on family members/neighbors."

The rare and powerful heat wave is also taking a bruising toll on the region’s infrastructure, buckling highways, hobbling public transit and triggering rolling power outages.

Avista Corp. — which serves nearly 340,000 customers in eastern Washington, Idaho and Oregon — instituted rolling outages for the first time in company history as temperatures soared. The periodic blackouts had impacted about 4,667 customers as of late Tuesday, with a total of 21,000 warned that they could face disruptions, the company said. Heat also warped Seattle highways and scorched Portland’s streetcar wires, suspending service.

The breakdowns are the latest sign that unprecedented challenges loom this summer. Heat, drought and wildfires tied to climate change have authorities on edge as they try to keep the power on and avoid more heat-related deaths that claim about 650 U.S. lives annually. U.S. President Joe Biden will meet governors of Western states Wednesday to discuss how to address wildfire threats.

Residents walk through a temporary misting station as temperatures rise in Vancouver on Monday. | BLOOMBERG
Residents walk through a temporary misting station as temperatures rise in Vancouver on Monday. | BLOOMBERG

The heat wave has forced schools and COVID-19 vaccination centers to close in the Vancouver area, while officials set up temporary water fountains and misting stations on street corners.

Stores quickly sold out of portable air conditioners and fans, so several people without cooling at home said they hunkered down in their air conditioned cars or underground parking garages at night.

Cities across the western United States and Canada opened emergency cooling centers and outreach workers handed out bottles of water and hats.

In Eugene, Oregon, organizers were forced to adjust the final day of the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, moving afternoon events to the evening.

The extreme heat, combined with intense drought, also created the perfect conditions for several fires to break out over the weekend. One blaze on the California-Oregon border had already burned some 600 hectares (1,500 acres) by Monday morning.

"Dubai would be cooler than what we're seeing now," David Phillips, a senior climatologist for Environment Canada, said Monday.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Northeast also is kicking off a heat wave from Pennsylvania to Maine that could push New York into the mid 30s, the National Weather Service said. Humidity will make it feel even hotter this week, driving energy demand across the region that relies on air conditioners to beat summer heat.

Consolidated Edison Inc. asked about 270,000 customers in parts of Queens and Manhattan to conserve energy Tuesday evening while the company repairs equipment. Users were encouraged not to use energy-intensive appliances such as washers and dryers. The New York-based utility also said it had reduced voltage levels by 5% to protect equipment.

Boston tied a daily record of 36 degrees Monday, the 10th time this year the city topped 32 degrees, while Newark tied a record at about 37 degrees. The East Coast heat wave however will be different from the Northwest’s because it will reverse in coming days, with rain and a high of just 25 degrees forecast for New York on Friday.

"It is hot all over, which is putting a demand on already tight resources,” said Scott Miller, executive director of the Western Power Trading Forum. "There is limited transmission to move generation around. Folks weren’t used to having such high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest.”

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