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Hot Topic: UVic, CRD extreme heat study gathers personal stories

Extreme heat stories, survey data to inform service providers, Island Health and CRD
A swimmer emerges from the ocean near Ogden Point after a record-breaking hot day. (Black Press Media file photo)

A new mother when the heat dome of 2021 hit, Sarah Wiebe found herself struggling to nurse her baby while battling migraines and nausea.

The midst of converging crises – pandemic, wildfires and smoke, alongside the heat – was a tricky time to embark on parenthood.

She found her struggling with post-partum, mental health, the pandemic, a heat dome and fires and then feeling isolated and struggling to find good information.

People died and her humanity left Wiebe wondering what impacts there were on other people with risks, other new parents and seniors living in isolation or people living with complex mental health concerns.

The researcher in her set out to find out.

Wiebe, an assistant professor at UVic took the lead on the A Hot Topic: Feeling the Impacts of Extreme Heat report, exploring how vulnerable groups fared in recent extreme heat events, and how those supports might improve.

“This issue literally affects everybody. No one is safe, no one is immune to the climate emergency. We’re all vulnerable but we’re all differently vulnerable,” she said.

A Capital Regional District (CRD) and University of Victoria project, the 2023 research included a survey, interviews and sharing circles to examine people’s experiences and policy responses to extreme heat events in the area over the previous two years. The plan is to share results with service providers, Island Health the 16 communities represented by the CRD and the regional district itself to develop policy and procedures.

In the survey, 62 per cent said their health was negatively impacted by extreme heat exposure and the majority, 79 per cent, described the health impact as moderate. Those numbers were reflected in the personal stories shared.

READ ALSO: Greater Victoria projected to face worse heat waves, more extreme rain

Income and employment appeared to be key factors in those who faced more challenges than others.

Numerous sharing circle participants identified lack of money as a barrier to purchasing cooling systems, curtains and transportation to cooling centres. That was similarly reflected in 40 per cent of respondents to the survey.

Hoping to particularly hear from vulnerable folks, such as isolated older adults, pregnant and nursing mothers and newcomers, a second key goal was to harness personal stories to help put a human face to the experiences. That included looking at peoples’ strategies, solutions and recommendations, Wiebe said.

While she expected to hear primarily about challenges, a surprising amount shared strategies. Folks from China, India and Ukraine had ideas based on how their countries handled similar situations. Someone from Japan noted misting stations are everywhere in that country, with splash pads in most parks.

“Here we have zero outdoor swimming pools,” Wiebe noted.

She was also pleased with participation and input from agencies and businesses that are often part of the solution. For example, a Greater Victoria Regional Public Library representative attended – with library branches frequently listed as a cooling option by local government.

Colwood Deputy Fire Chief Scott Abrahamson attended a sharing circle to both share and glean information, gathering perspectives in a bid keep the community as safe as possible.

“It’s about learning. It’s about being open and understanding. How do we plan for things and how do we act appropriately if we don’t understand what’s happening?” Abrahamson said. “I think we all have preconceived ideas of how heat affects everybody, but we’re taking that based on our own personal situation.”

The diversity of the sharing circle he attended provided those degrees of impact. One individual didn’t find there was any issue at all. Then other vulnerabilities within the group revealed themselves and another participant with physical health challenges, highlighted how when outdoor temps hit 25 C, he’d see negative health affects.

“It was interesting to see as we went around the room and people shared their stories, my mind really was opened to the challenges individuals do face. It isn’t a one-size fits all,” Abrahamson said. “There were things I hadn’t thought of.”

As a first responder, he also gathers valuable information while out in the community, whether at emergencies or educational events.

He recalls chatting with a resident with mobility impairments who was hospitalized during the 2021 heat. They met during a subsequent emergency at her multi-unit residential building. Living on the top floor, she wasn’t aware of increasing temperatures and didn’t attempt to cool down. A sharp woman, she felt embarrassed it even happened.

“It wasn’t until things were too late that she ended up having to call 911,” he said. “It’s stories like that that really spark something in me that it helps educate the rest of the community when I can utilize examples like this … if it can happen to someone else it can certainly happen again.”

Communications was a consistent concern, with participants wishing for multiple forms of information from smartphone to community flyers. The need for one app sharing health, weather and cooling infrastructure options instead of leaving folks digging around on different websites and social media. And while most people have a cellphone, not all do.

Communication is something Abrahamson also hones in on. He builds stories and experiences into public education and community messaging, sharing as much information as possible through Colwood’s social media channels, regional meetings, community groups and partnering with different levels of government and key organizations.

READ ALSO: CRD portal integrates heat disaster risk reduction, climate planning

In the fall, the Hot Topic project team met with people involved in developing policy, representatives from the Ministry of Environment, health, fire departments, local government and First Nations. This month, the CRD launched a new online extreme heat information portal, corralling information and maps to help residents and municipal planners.

It includes a climate projections report updated to April 2024.

“We’re going to need really innovative approaches to governance and policy. We’re learning a little bit after the fact, but I’m hopeful we can look ahead and start planning better,” Wiebe said. “This issue literally affects everybody. No one is safe, no one is immune to the climate emergency. We’re all vulnerable but we’re all differently vulnerable.”

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Christine van Reeuwyk

About the Author: Christine van Reeuwyk

Longtime journalist with the Greater Victoria news team.
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