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The Pacific Northwest heat dome event of 2021 killed hundreds of people. KNKX reporters Bellamy Pailthorp and Lilly Ana Fowler look in-depth at who died, why and how King and Pierce counties can better prepare for future heat waves.

'This is likely to be a deadly threat': What can we do to survive the next heat wave?

Lilly Ana Fowler
Farmworkers outside the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries office in Tumwater protest new emergency heat rules on Aug. 5, 2021.

Earlier this month, outside the state Department of Labor and Industries in Tumwater, union organizers and farmworkers shouted through bullhorns and carried signs that read “We are not machines.” On a hot day, they protested emergency heat rules the department put in place to protect them.

“A lot of those rules are either already laws or don't actually enact until it reaches over 100 degrees,” said Edgar Franks of Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, a farmworker union in Burlington.

Franks wants hazard pay and mandatory shade breaks for farmworkers. Right now, employers just have to offer them ways to cool down, and 10-minute breaks every two hours. Those guidelines are too vague, Franks said.

“Even with the rules and everything that were enacted, we still had a farmworker death in the Yakima Valley, where it’s consistently over a 100 degrees all throughout the summer,” Franks said.

Franks is referring to Florencio Gueta Vargas, who died in July while working at a hops farm. News reports said someone found Gueta Vargas slumped by the step of his tractor. The Yakima County Coroner’s Office determined that heat contributed to his death.

Lilly Ana Fowler
Protesters at an August rally in front of the state Labor & Industries headquarters in Tumwater called for better protections for farmworkers in the heat.

Federal occupational health and safety guidelines do not include heat protections for agricultural workers or anyone else on the job. Instead, states are left to adapt their own rules.

Beyond outdoor workers, people heading to offices or grocery stores faced harm, too.

Record high temperatures caught them off guard in cities like Seattle and Tacoma.

Noel Kresl, 23, lives in Beacon Hill.

“It was so hot,” Kresl said, referring to the heat wave in June. "I mean, honestly, I'm a little bit afraid of what's to come just because of the climate changing and stuff like that. But I don't have AC in our apartment. I had to put, like, cold towels on my body to sleep."

Expert after expert told KNKX people will continue to die from conditions like this unless cities plan a lot better for extreme heat.

But even a comprehensive plan isn’t foolproof.

Vancouver, British Columbia, has had one for a decade, ever since an Indigenous homeless man named Curtis Brick died while lying in the street. No one stopped to help him. His death pushed the city to try and shield people from extreme heat.

As temperatures approached 116 degrees this summer in Vancouver, local officials sent two levels of heat warnings through weather apps and social media. City employees also set up temporary drinking fountains, turned on mist showers in public places and opened cooling centers at libraries and other spaces. Subsidized housing developments offered cooling rooms, wellness checks, bottled water and sunscreen. Park rangers and other officers tried to regularly check in on people.

None of that was enough to save everyone. Close to 600 people died, and possibly more, during the heat wave — most in metro Vancouver.

Here’s one reason, experts suggest: If people don't take care of one another beyond their own homes, more are likely to suffer or die from the heat.

The father of Craig McCulloch was lucky. McCulloch, a radio journalist, was able to take his dad to a hospital for heat stroke before an ambulance could. (McCulloch is a KNKX contributor.)

“The dispatcher was actually crying on the phone, and she said there's going to be at least a 10-hour wait. She says we’re getting calls from all over the place that are needing our help, and we’re not getting to them. And there’s people dying,” McCulloch recalled in a recent interview.

McCulloch’s father survived. Most other people in Vancouver relied on first responders instead of checking on and helping their neighbors with heat-related health problems. That strained the city’s emergency response system, already stretched thin because of COVID-19.

On both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, many people are vulnerable to heat because they have nowhere to live or because mental health issues make it difficult for them to grasp how much danger they’re in.

Jeremy Hess is an emergency room doctor in Seattle. He worked several shifts during the heat wave.

“One of the first things I saw when I came in was a patient whose feet — the soles of his feet — had third-degree burns from walking on the asphalt,” Hess said.

Even people who knew it was hot didn’t take temperature warnings seriously.

Daniel Stevens, who heads emergency management for Vancouver, B.C., said that’s because, in general, we in this part of the world welcome summer.

Pacific Northwest Heat Wave
John Froschauer/The Associated Press
The Associated Press
An unidentified child cools off at the Yesler Terrace spray park during June's heat wave. Daniel Stevens, who heads emergency management for Vancouver, B.C., said that heat is something that people often enjoy, but that it can quickly turn dangerous without people realizing it.

"Heat is something that people really enjoy up to a certain point. But it creeps up, and there's a tipping point where it starts to become dangerous,” Stevens said.

Heat can exacerbate chronic conditions: strokes, heart and kidney failure. Hess, who also teaches at the University of Washington, said heat advisories are way too vague.

“I personally at least didn't hear a lot of warnings that were very specific about, 'This is likely to be a deadly threat,' which you now hear from some other kinds of risk communication around hurricanes and other things. They will very clearly say the level of risk,” Hess said. “Then I didn't hear much that was specific about how to recognize heat exhaustion and heat stroke.”

On top of that, Hess said, all the messages were in English — in a region with large numbers of people who speak Spanish, Cantonese and Somali.

If summer 2021 taught us anything it’s that heat knows no language. We all felt it. Now we have to figure out how to protect one another.

Lilly Ana Fowler reports on social justice issues for KNKX. She previously worked for the nonprofit news site Crosscut — a partner of KCTS 9, Seattle’s PBS station.
Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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