Record heatwave may have killed 500 people in western Canada

<span>Photograph: Don Mackinnon/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Don Mackinnon/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly 500 people may have been killed by record-breaking temperatures in Canada’s westernmost province, as officials warn the grim toll from “heat dome” could rise again as more deaths are reported.

On Friday, British Columbia’s chief coroner said that 719 “sudden and unexpected deaths” had been reported over the past week – triple the number during a similar period in a typical year.

“We are releasing this information as it is believed likely the extreme weather BC has experienced in the past week is a significant contributing factor to the increased number of deaths,” the chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said in a statement.

The coroner’s office said it would typically expect close to 230 deaths in a similar period.

Related: Deadly British Columbia heatwave sows wildfires across Canada’s west

The overall total will probably rise after more communities provide data, but Lapointe said the province has seen a promising downward trend in recent days as the heat ebbs and shifts eastward.

Officials have cautioned it will probably take months to determine the exact cause of death for hundreds of residents, but they say heat played a significant role in the surge in fatalities, especially among seniors in the province.

“Many of the deaths experienced over the past week were among older individuals living alone in private residences with minimal ventilation,” Lapointe said in her statement.

In a region of the country accustomed to mild summer temperatures, communities were forced to scramble to find ways to help vulnerable residents stay safe amid blistering temperatures.

But regional officials are facing growing questions over their response to the crisis.

On Thursday, the head of the province’s emergency health service apologized after residents were made to wait hours for ambulances during the worst of the heatwave.

Global News reported that British Columbia’s emergency services centre – which allows paramedics to be redeployed to high need areas – wasn’t activated until after the worst of the heatwave had passed.

The weather system that enveloped large swaths of the Pacific north-west broke 103 heat records across British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and Northwest Territories earlier this week, according to Environment Canada.

The heat has done little to help a province already vulnerable to the devastating effects of wildfires.

At least two people are believed to have died in a wildfire that destroyed the village of Lytton on Wednesday. Police attempted to search for missing residents, but dangerous conditions have prevented them from entering the community.

Late on Friday, 136 active wildfires were reported in British Columbia, including nine which were “of concern”, according to officials. The dry, hot weather is expected to continue for the next week, hampering efforts to gain control over the fires.