King County plans first-ever extreme heat mitigation plan

The new plan comes in response to last year’s record-breaking heatwave that killed 91 people in the Pacific Northwest.

KING COUNTY, Wash. — As Washington state prepares to hit 80 degrees for the first time this year, King County officials are preparing to announce their first-ever action plan Friday to reduce the impact of future heat waves.

The new Extreme Heat Mitigation plan is part of King County’s Strategic Climate Action Plan.

County health officials said the plan’s goal is to help people adapt to “inevitable heat events,” provide them with better resources to mitigate the effects of the heat, and find community solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions .

King County is already in the process of taking several measures to combat heat waves, including:

  • Adding subway bus shelters in the hottest temperature areas
  • Plant trees for the 3 million trees initiative
  • Volunteers help people access emergency heat information
  • Replacing gas, oil and electric stoves/air conditioners with energy efficient heat pumps for low-income homes
  • Offering low-cost private loans for commercial and multi-family homes to make energy-efficient upgrades

In the heat mitigation plan, the county outlined long-term steps it plans to include in its fight against rising temperatures, including:

  • Change in building code requirements for better protection against rising temperatures
  • Incentives for landlords to upgrade units with better heat protection
  • Modernization of rental properties
  • Mine more areas and add more “green spaces”.
  • Adding water features in more neighborhoods to give people places to cool off
  • Preservation of approximately 65,000 acres of open space in King County before conversion to buildings or commercial development

Last year’s record-breaking heat wave brought the highest temperatures ever recorded in Seattle and several straight days of triple-digit highs throughout the Puget Sound region. Temperatures reached as high as 118 degrees in Maple Valley and 116 degrees in Issaquah.

The Washington Department of Health (DOH) said 91 people are likely to have died due to the historic heatwave in the Pacific Northwest from late June to early July. Most of these deaths occurred in King and Pierce counties.

A 2021 study found that Washington state’s historic heatwave would have been nearly impossible without the effects of climate change.

“We have witnessed the deadliest climate event in our history and know that these events now threaten us,” said Jeff Duchin, King County Health Supervisor. “They are becoming more frequent, are expected to last longer, and they are also becoming more intense. We really need to do everything we can to minimize the risk of these heatwaves becoming even more catastrophic in the future.”

For comparison, from mid-June to late August in 2020, there were only seven heat-related deaths in all of Washington state. From 2015 to 2020, there were a total of 39 heat-related deaths in the warmer months of May through September.

Gabriel Debay, medical duty officer for the Shoreline Fire Department, said that at the height of the 2021 heat wave, between 10 and 15 ambulances carrying heat stroke patients were often waiting outside Harborview Medical Center.

A five-minute delay in these cases could mean the difference between life and death, Debay said.

“I never thought I would experience so many heat strokes in such a short amount of time,” Debay said.

A 2020 heat mapping project by King County and the City of Seattle measured how heat waves affect different communities. The project found that temperatures in the Ballard area reached 85 degrees at the same time and place in the county while Kent reported 96 degrees.

The study found that warmer areas of King County typically have more pavement and hard surfaces, which trap heat and amplify temperatures during a heat wave. The cooler areas have more tree canopies, parks and natural landscapes, which offends neighborhoods from higher temperatures, according to the project.

Lara Binder, director of King County’s climate preparedness program, said there can be a temperature difference of up to 23 degrees in King County at the same time of the day due to differences in geography, land use and tree canopy.

Researchers from the University of Washington found increases in 911 calls, hospitalizations and mortality as King County warmed up.

The Heatmap Project states that heat-related health risks in King County are compounded by inequalities in housing, access to health care, and health outcomes. According to the study, the elderly, children, pregnant women, people who work outdoors, those without shelter and those with chronic medical conditions are most at risk of heat stroke.

Many of the areas affected by higher temperatures happen to be the same areas disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and other health inequalities. ]

Binder said she wants officials to focus on adjusting local environments to better protect them from the heat.

“While extreme heat affects everyone, not everyone is equally affected,” Binder said.

In July 2021, dozens of people died during the historic Pacific Northwest heatwave. On June 28, temperatures in Seattle reached 108 degrees.

“Last summer sent an exclamation point to what we’ve known for a while: we must deal with what we know is coming and we must prevent what is avoidable,” Duchin said.

As temperatures continue to warm in the region, heat has proven to be the number one weather-related killer in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC said about 618 people are killed each year by extreme heat. According to a CDC morbidity and mortality report, the number of heat-related deaths was even higher over a 15-year period from 2004 to 2018. During that time, there were an average of 702 heat-related deaths in the US each year.

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