Authorities investigate hundreds of deaths linked to torrid Pacific Northwest weather

  • The deaths come as a heat dome traps hot air over the Pacific Northwest, with temperature records being set earlier in the week.
  • At least 63 people in Oregon have died since Friday, according to the State Medical Examiner's office. Washington state authorities had linked more than half-dozen deaths to the heat, but that number was likely to rise.
  • Scientists expect more frequent and intense heat waves because of climate change and the worst drought in modern history.

Authorities from Oregon to British Columbia are investigating hundreds of deaths in connection to the historic heat wave in the Pacific Northwest corridor.

Temperatures in Oregon topped 117 Monday, according to the National Weather Service, due to a heat dome trapping hot air over the state and its neighbors. 

At least 63 people have died since Friday, the State Medical Examiner's office said, and "preliminary investigation suggests may be associated with the Pacific Northwest heatwave," said Oregon State Police Captain Tim Fox. 

That number was based on reports from each county's medical office and could fluctuate as more information becomes available. 

At least 45 of those deaths were in Multnomah County, which houses Portland, Oregon, officials said in a news release. Ages among the dead range from 44 to 97, and most had underlying health conditions. 

"This was a true health crisis that has underscored how deadly an extreme heat wave can be, especially to otherwise vulnerable people,’’ said Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines. “I know many county residents were looking out for each other and am deeply saddened by this initial death toll. As our summers continue to get warmer, I suspect we will face this kind of event again.’’

Washington state authorities had linked more than half-dozen deaths to the heat, but that number was likely to rise.

The King County medical examiner's office, which covers an area including Seattle, said at least 13 people have died, The Seattle Times reported. In neighboring Snohomish County, three men — ages 51, 75 and 77, respectively — died after experiencing heatstroke in their homes, the medical examiner’s office told the Daily Herald in Everett, Washington, on Tuesday.

In western Washington, the Spokane Fire Department found two people dead in an apartment building Wednesday who had been suffering symptoms of heat-related stress, KREM-TV reported.

Hospitals in the state were overwhelmed by a wave of patients — one hospital told the Times the influx was reminiscent of the COVID-19 pandemic’s earliest days.

“It felt very much like what happened in the initial days of trying to deal with the original outbreak [of the coronavirus] at the Life Care Center in Kirkland,” Dr. Steve Mitchell, medical director of the emergency department at Harborview Medical Center, told the newspaper. “We got to the point where facilities were struggling with basic equipment, like ventilators.”

Further north, British Columbia’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said at least 486 deaths were reported from Friday to Wednesday afternoon, according to CTV News in Vancouver, a 195% increase from normal sudden deaths in the province.

98 of those deaths were in Vancouver and two-thirds of the victims were age 70 or older, police said. Coroners were still investigating whether the record-breaking heat played a role. 

The deaths come as a heat wave is scorching most of the Pacific Northwest. The heat still set records earlier this week.

Seattle set a record of 104 degrees Sunday and broke that Monday with 107 degrees, the World Meteorological Organization said. Portland broke the record twice: 108 on Saturday and 112 on Sunday. 

Lytton, British Columbia, set records three days in a row: the highest of those being 121 degrees Monday, which is the highest temperature ever recorded both in the country and north of the fiftieth parallel.

But the heat deaths extend beyond the corridor and into the southwest of the United States. A heat wave that topped temperatures of 118 degrees June 12 to 19 officials in Arizona had confirmed nine deaths and were investigating at least 75.

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What is causing the deaths?

Heat causes more deaths in the U.S. than all other natural disasters combined. Scientists expect more frequent and intense heat waves because of climate change and the worst drought in modern history.

According to 2019 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Pacific Northwest's low air conditioning supply is probably also contributing to the deaths. 

Seattle has the lowest rate of air-conditioned homes of any major American city with 44% of the homes in the metro area having air conditioning. And although close to 80% of Portland homes have AC, about half of them are window units, which provided considerably less relief than a central air system. By comparison, an average of 91% of homes in the U.S. have AC. 

Many homes in Vancouver also lack air conditioning.

“Heat exhaustion happens when your body isn’t able to regulate its own temperature, and it begins to rise," Dr. Caroline King-Widdall said in a statement, released Thursday by the healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente Northwest. "This can happen when you’re working out rigorously or when you’re doing yard work outside on a hot day."

When temperatures rise, the risk of heat exhaustion increases, King-Widdall said.

"If heat exhaustion isn’t addressed it can lead to heatstroke, which is more serious," King-Widdall said.

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Contributing: Lindsay Schnell, USA TODAY; Claire Withycombe, Salem Statesman Journal; Associated Press.