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Beating the heat: Gonzaga climate center's map breaks down heat-related deaths

According to the Spokane County Medical Examiner's office, 20 people died from heat-related causes in 2021.

SPOKANE, Wash. — The summer heat is back and it can have devastating effects.

Last year, more than a dozen people died in Spokane County during an unprecedented heat dome. 

According to Brian Henning, director of Gonzaga University's Center of Climate, Society and the Environment, last summer's heat wave took many by surprise.

"And what we found were there community members from across the area who didn't have air conditioning or were unable to use it, didn't realize just how deadly it can be,” said Henning.

According to the Spokane County Medical Examiner's office, 20 people died from heat-related causes in 2021.

Of those deaths, 16 were mapped by the center since they were listed on the SCMEO’s Media Release Information section.

Of the deaths mapped, the dates range from June 29 to July 7, with most taking place on July 1.

When the deaths break down by age, most of the victims were in their 60s and 70s. The oldest was 84 years old, while the youngest was 36.

"We see that it's people across this the county who died,” Henning said. “Frequently, though, it's people who are older and have pre-existing health conditions."

According to the medical examiner's report, most of the deaths took place in the victim's home, which had “inadequate ways of regulating temperature."

"Poor neighborhoods, and unfortunately Spokane has too many of them," Henning said. "(They) end up frequently having less tree coverage and therefore they're more vulnerable. They may not have an air conditioner or if they have one, they're not able to run it because of unable to pay the electrical bills."

It was last year's extreme heat that sparked the center’s new initiative Spokane Beat the Heat.

A group of volunteers drove through Spokane this last Saturday to map the city's hottest neighborhoods using sensors to figure out the city's urban heat island.

Henning hopes the data generated from the study can be used to figure out a plan so that next time Spokane faces a heat wave, everyone can stay safe.

“No one should be in a position of dying and with good preparation and good community minded spirit, we can actually make sure that the next time this happens that we're better prepared,” Henning said.

Henning added they’re planning to have a survey as a follow up to their urban heat island project. According to him, they plan to have participants answering questions such as "Do you have air conditioning?" and "Can you afford to run it?"

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