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caption: Melvin O'Brien waits in the shade in Yesler Terrace Park while his children play in the spray park during a heat wave hitting the Pacific Northwest, Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Seattle.
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Melvin O'Brien waits in the shade in Yesler Terrace Park while his children play in the spray park during a heat wave hitting the Pacific Northwest, Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Seattle.
Credit: AP Photo/John Froschauer

2021 heat wave is now the deadliest weather-related event in Washington history

The official death toll from Washington state’s record-breaking heat wave jumped by 21 people Monday, as the Washington Department of Health revised its count to 112 people.

The latest update makes the early-summer heat wave the state's deadliest weather-related disaster.

Heat-related deaths were reported in 20 counties across the state, according to the Washington Department of Health, which continues to tally reports sent in from county coroners and hospitals.

The extreme heat has claimed the largest number of victims in the state’s two biggest counties: 28 in King County and 21 in Pierce County.

On Monday, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office reported 23 confirmed heat-related deaths.

State health officials said their tally lags behind those of local health departments.

The official statewide toll—which is expected to keep rising—now nearly equals that of Oregon, where at least 116 people are known to have died from the heat.

To the north, British Columbia estimated heat-related deaths by comparing all deaths reported on each day of the heat wave to the same dates in previous years. There, the B.C. Coroner’s office estimated some 580 “excess deaths” during the province’s week of previously unthinkable temperatures.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that 3,500 people in four Northwest states wound up in emergency rooms with heat-related ailments in May and June, with nearly 2,800 heading to the ER June 25-30, when most of Oregon and Washington were under extreme heat warnings.

On June 28, at least 1,038 people headed to the ER for heat-related illness in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska. On that date one year earlier, nine people did.

CDC officials did not respond to requests for a state-by-state breakdown of their numbers. (Neither Idaho nor Alaska experienced the extreme heat that Oregon and Washington did.)

Monday's update from the Washington Department of Health makes the heat wave Washington's deadliest weather-related disaster. That record was previously held by a 1910 avalanche near Stevens Pass that killed 96 people in two trains.

No extreme heat, cold, storm, or flood on record in Washington has come close to killing so many people.

A “rapid attribution” study by climate scientists, published before peer review, concluded that this heat wave was made possible by an altered climate that sent the Northwest farther into record-smashing territory.

As greenhouse gas pollution pushes an overheated world farther into uncharted territory, such off-the-chart extremes become less unlikely, while more ordinary heat waves are expected to become more frequent and intense.

“What we think of [as] extreme right now is going to be much, much more frequent in the future,” earth scientist Claudia Tebaldi with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Maryland said.

While the Yakima County Coroner’s Office reported that extreme heat contributed to the deaths of two men in their 30s, most of those who died in Washington were elderly.

Many died alone, found in their overheated apartments, trailers, or cars.

"There was no air conditioning in the homes where these deaths occurred," the Benton County coroner reported on the deaths of a 69-year-old man, a 73-year-old man, and a 74-year-old woman, whose names were not released.

Heat waves kill more people in the United States than any other form of extreme weather.

To keep death tolls down in the future, University of Washington global health researcher Kristie Ebi urged local governments to both devise “heat action plans” to prepare better for future heat waves, as cities in hotter climates have done, and to stop the pollution that fuels extreme weather conditions .

“The climate science is very clear the future is in our hands,” Ebi said. “How hot it's going to be later in your life is going to depend on the greenhouse gases emitted today.”

Where Washington state victims of the heat wave lived and where they died, according to a preliminary list from the Washington Department of Health on July 19:

County Residence Occurrence
Asotin 1 1
Benton 4 4
Clallam 2 2
Clark 3 3
Cowlitz 1 1
Douglas 2 2
Franklin 1 1
Island 1 0
Jefferson 2 2
King 20 28
Kitsap 2 2
Okanogan 4 4
Pacific 1 1
Pierce 18 21
Skagit 7 8
Snohomish 7 10
Spokane 7 7
Thurston 6 6
Walla Walla 1 1
Whatcom 3 3
Yakima 5 5
Unknown 14 0
Total 112 112