As we head into summer, preparation is key when it comes to staying cool and preventing heat-related illnesses.
Last summer, nearly 600 British Columbians died due to an unprecedented extreme heat wave that scorched much of the province and ignited a destructive wildfire in Lytton. At least 526 people died between June 25 and July 1, most of them in their homes.
That extreme heat isn’t something meteorologists expect to happen every year, but warned it could happen more frequently due to climate change.
This summer, Environment Canada is forecasting a cooler-than-normal summer. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be any sizzling hot days in June, July or August.
The risk for heat waves goes up mid-July to mid-August, said Environment Canada meteorologist Doug Lundquist. He recommends people get ready early to avoid a repeat of last year’s death toll. “What happened last year won’t happen every year, but we have to be prepared, no matter what,” he said.
Here are some tips to get you ready by the time the heat hits.
Consider installing an air conditioner
Given the B.C.’s coast’s temperate climate, we haven’t been heavy users of air conditioning. That has started to change due to the increasing frequency of heat waves and wildfire smoke, said B.C. Hydro, which conducted a survey that found most residents consider an A/C a necessity, not a luxury.
More than 20 per cent of British Columbians bought or upgraded their A/C units last summer, said the power corporation. Scorching temperatures pushed A/C use to jump almost as much as the previous decade combined.
Starting in 2025, the city of Vancouver will require cooling systems and a Merv 13 air filtration system in all new multi-family buildings. Until then — or for those who live in detached homes or in older buildings — you’re on your own.
Air conditioners become hot-ticket items once the hot weather begins, so get them early before they get scarce. Alternatively, you can also try the DIY route: How to make your own air conditioner for just a few dollars.
If you already have air conditioner units or portable fans, take them out of storage and make sure they’re still working. It’s also a good time to clean the filters to make sure they work optimally.
Use an air purifier
Air quality suffers during the summer months, especially if wildfire smoke blows in from the Interior or from Washington state or California.
The fine particulate matter in smoke is harmful to human health, especially for seniors, adults, infants, pregnant women and people with asthma, pulmonary disease and heart disease. The general guidance is to keep windows in your homes closed and avoid outdoor activity. Even then, the smoke could filter in.
Several studies have shown air purifiers with HEPA filters can get rid of harmful particulate fine matter and other pollutants in the air. Get one with a carbon or charcoal filter in order to remove the odour of smoke.
Here are some tips on what to look for in an air purifier. The B.C. Centre for Disease Control also offers a step-by-step guide on building your own. You’ll need a box fan, furnace filters rated at MERV 13 or higher, and tape, scissors, and cardboard.
Prepare your home
When it’s hot outside, you want to maximize cooler temperatures inside.
Check the condition of weatherstripping around doors and windows and seal any air leaks. If your home is drafty, the heat won’t stay out and your A/C or fan will have to work overtime to cool the interiors.
Learn how to use natural ventilation, but take care not to compromise security. Create cross-breezes when you open a window or door on either sides of your home.
Take note of the amount of sunlight your home receives at different times of the day, so you know which rooms gets the most heat buildup. Install or use curtains and blinds to help block sunlight and reduce indoor heat. Light-coloured curtains can reflect the sun. Those with south- or west-facing windows can use reflectors which deflect sunlight.
You might also want to stock up on items like sunscreen, water bottles, sunglasses, sun hats, wading pools, spritz bottles or whatever you’d need to help you cool down.
Sign up to receive public heat warnings
Environment Canada issues heat warnings when daytime highs hit 29 C in Vancouver (33 C in the Fraser Valley) and nighttime minimum temperatures don’t go below 16 C (17 C in the Fraser Valley) for two or more days in a row.
The heat warnings, which are broadcast using news media, social media, Environment Canada’s website and digital weather apps, are meant to notify the public of extreme-heat conditions and how long the conditions are expected to last. You can get weather alerts from Environment Canada’s free WeatherCAN app.
Health authorities can also issue public warnings. For instance, health authorities issue an extreme heat alert when daytime highs hit 31 C in Vancouver or 36 C in Abbotsford.
Provincially, B.C.’s automated alert system to warn residents of dangerously high temperatures is expected to be in place by June (health officials are still trying to determine what conditions will constitute a heat warning).
Pay attention to air quality reports
Wildfire smoke contains fine particulate matter, that can travel deep into the lungs and lead to symptoms like sore throat, runny nose, mild cough, and eye irritation. People with pre-existing chronic conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pregnant women, seniors and young children are especially vulnerable.
The Air Quality Health Index provides daily updates on air quality in the Metro Vancouver region, pegging it by the degree of risk from 1 to 10+.
Metro Vancouver also monitors the latest air quality and weather data from 31 stations in the Lower Fraser Valley and publishes it at Airmap.ca and issues air quality advisories when the air gets bad. To receive direct notification, you can sign up here.
Find out where to get cool
When a heat wave hits and you don’t have air conditioning, it’s best to stay out — but stay in. Go to malls, movie theatres, cafés and restaurants.
Municipalities will often issue advisories listing available places to keep cool, such as swimming pools, spray parks, water fountains and misting stations.
Vancouver, for example, activates cooling centres at community centres and public libraries in the event of a heat warning from Environment Canada.
Under an extreme heat alert issued by Vancouver Coastal Health, it would also extend hours at cooling centres, set up “pop up” spray locations in parks and install heavy water misters in public spaces (more information on the City of Vancouver’s heat response here).
Lighten up on the menu
Skip the heavy foods, and opt for salads, sandwiches, fruits, and vegetables instead. Food like watermelon and cucumber are over 90 per cent water and will keep you hydrated. Simpler meals that don’t require cooking also means you won’t have to turn on your stove or oven, which reduces the heat in the house.
Keep a pitcher or bottles of water chilling in the fridge and make sure you have ice cubes and ice packs ready to go.
Keep the appliances off
Check appliances to see what you could turn off during a heat wave. Avoid using heat-producing appliances like the stove, oven, dishwasher and dryer. Even smaller appliances, such as laptops and toasters, are best unplugged.
Another tip: Change some of your behaviour to avoid generating extra heat. So ditch the dryer in favour of air-drying clothes, and cook food in a microwave rather than an oven.
And consider changing your light bulbs to energy-efficient LED light bulbs — it’ll save you on power bills in the long run, and emit almost no heat.
Check in with friends, family and neighbours
The findings from the B.C. Coroners Service about the deaths during last summer’s heat dome included this sobering statistic: 79 per cent of those who died were 65 or older.
For the elderly and vulnerable, intense heat is not just uncomfortable, it can be deadly.
Check in with friends, family and neighbours, particularly those who are elderly, socially isolated, or those who have mobility challenges as they may be less able to prepare themselves and their homes. Develop a buddy system and check in with your buddy frequently, especially in the evening and early morning.
Prepare a backup place to sleep or work
If you don’t have air conditioning or your bedroom feels like an oven, pick a different place to sleep. Since heat rises, the ground floor or basement are usually cooler spots in the house. Indoor hammocks or the living room couch might be better spots until temperatures cool down.
If you have friends or family with A/C and room to spare, consider doing a sleepover.
If you work from home, arrange to work in the office during the hottest days. This is a time when perennially cold office spaces come in handy.
Know the signs of heat-related illnesses
Brush up on the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses so you can identify problems and seek aid.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion could include rashes, muscle cramps, dizziness or fainting, and headache. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should move to a cool place and drink water, said Health Canada. Symptoms of heat stroke, which is considered a medical emergency, include a high body temperature, dizziness or fainting, and confusion and lack of co-ordination. In these cases, call 911.
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