At least 69 people in Canada’s Vancouver area have died in a record-smashing heat wave engulfing the west of the country and the US Pacific Northwest, police said on June 29.

Most of the dead in the Vancouver suburbs of Burnaby and Surrey over the past 24 hours were elderly or people with underlying health conditions, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said.

Other local municipalities have said they too have responded to many sudden death calls since June 28, but have yet to release tolls.

“Although still under investigation, heat is believed to be a contributing factor in the majority of the deaths,” RCMP Corporal Michael Kalanj said in a statement.

Climate change is causing record-setting temperatures to become more frequent. Globally, the decade to 2019 was the hottest recorded, and the five hottest years have all occurred within the last five years.

The scorching heat stretching from the US state of Oregon to Canada’s Arctic territories has been blamed on a high-pressure ridge trapping warm air in the region.

On June 28, Canada set a new all-time high temperature record of 47.9 degrees Celsius in Lytton in British Columbia, about 250km east of Vancouver.

And forecasters were expecting the record to go again on June 29, predicting 48.9C heat in western Canada.

Temperatures in the US Pacific Northwest cities of Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington reached levels not seen since record-keeping began in the 1940s: 46.1C in Portland and 42.2C in Seattle, according to the National Weather Service.

Vancouver on the Pacific coast has for several days recorded temperatures above 30C (or around 11 degrees above seasonal norms). Inland along the Fraser River delta, due to high humidity, climatologists said it felt like 43.9C on June 29.

“We are in the midst of the hottest week British Columbians have ever experienced,” British Columbia Premier John Horgan told a news conference.

“How we get through this extraordinary time is by hanging together,” he said.

He urged “checking up on those people we know might be at risk, making sure we have cold compresses in the fridge or we’re staying in the coolest part of our homes, and making sure that we’re taking steps to get through this heatwave.”

Environment Canada has issued alerts for British Columbia, Alberta, and parts of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon and the Northwest Territories, saying the “prolonged, dangerous and historic heat wave will persist through this week”.

The heat wave has forced schools and Covid-19 vaccination centers to close in the Vancouver area, while officials set up temporary water fountains and misting stations on street corners.

Stores quickly sold out of portable air conditioners and fans.

The extreme heat, combined with intense drought, also created the perfect conditions for several fires to break out over the weekend, and one blaze on the California-Oregon border had already burned some 600ha by the morning of June 28.