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Death Toll Climbs In Pacific Northwest Due To Heat Wave

NOEL KING, HOST:

In the Pacific Northwest, people are dying because of extreme heat. In British Columbia, almost 500 people have died. In Oregon, it's nearly 80. And in Washington state, at least 20 deaths have been reported.

Here's Monica Samayoa with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

MONICA SAMAYOA, BYLINE: Portland is known for cool air and gray skies. But this week has been different.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: The mercury will blast past previous record highs in the low hundreds on a sprint towards breathtaking new records of 115 degrees according to some forecasts.

SAMAYOA: While much of the metro area is green and leafy, some areas around town lack the cool shade of green spaces. These are called heat islands - places where concrete, asphalt and other hard surfaces absorb the heat and radiate it. Freeways, parking lots and bigger buildings contribute to heat islands. And these islands are often found near communities of color.

When the heat wave hit, Portland State University professor, Vivek Shandas, went to check thermometers he set around town.

VIVEK SHANDAS: We've ended up finding some neighborhoods that were as high as 124 degrees Fahrenheit and other neighborhoods that were actually about 98 degrees Fahrenheit.

SAMAYOA: Shandas, who studies climate, says the heat wave contributed to a bigger problem - high temperatures during what is supposed to be a cooling period overnight.

SHANDAS: Nighttime is one of the most potent times where people die of heat exhaustion.

SAMAYOA: Shandas attributes the Portland area's high death count to the lack of overnight relief.

A cool space is exactly what Chris Voss and his team at Multnomah County are trying to provide.

CHRIS VOSS: We saw a high of 116, 14 degrees hotter than any day we've seen in June.

SAMAYOA: Voss, who's a director of emergency management, says the county took immediate action to open up cooling centers that ended up being overnight shelters as well. These extreme temperatures happen in June. Usually, July and August are even warmer in the region. Looking forward, Voss says it will take more than just opening cooling centers.

VOSS: It is all of us working to deal with a changing environment. And we know a lot of that change environment is being driven by climate change.

SAMAYOA: Voss worries these once-rare situations just might become more common.

For NPR News, I'm Monica Samayoa in Portland.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "INTROSPECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.