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Triple digit temperatures are back in Phoenix and already there have been fatalities

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The triple digits are back in Phoenix, and there have already been fatalities as a result.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah, the city suffered more than 600 deaths last year as a result of extreme heat, and more are coming this year. But the city and the surrounding county have been taking steps to try to prevent that.

FADEL: Katherine Davis-Young at member station KJZZ is tracking this closely and joins me now. Good morning.

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: Hi there.

FADEL: So it's nothing new that summer weather in Phoenix is hot, right? So why have officials become so concerned about the heat in the last few years?

DAVIS-YOUNG: Right. We are famous for our scorching temperatures. But the public health impacts of heat are tracked very closely by Maricopa County. And the number of those heat-related deaths has absolutely skyrocketed over the past decade. Actually, every year since 2016, we've set a new record for these fatalities. Ten years ago, we'd see maybe 75 heat deaths per year. Last year, like you said, there were 645.

FADEL: That's quite a jump. What are leaders doing to try to address this?

DAVIS-YOUNG: A lot of the increase correlates with really fast growth of our homeless population. Unsheltered people make up a large portion of those who die in the heat each year, so there have been major investments at the city, county and state level in homeless shelters and housing solutions.

But more specifically, to address heat, the city and county have been looking for ways to offer more access to cool spaces in summer months. There are dozens of heat relief sites across the Phoenix area. But the city, for the first time this year, is keeping one of its cooling centers open 24/7 since officials found about a third of heat-related 911 calls were actually happening overnight or in the early morning.

The city is also trying to respond to heat emergencies quicker. The Phoenix Fire Department this summer adopted a new method for immersing heatstroke patients in ice-filled bags to try to bring body temperatures down much faster in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

FADEL: OK, so it's July. Is there any indication so far this summer that these changes are reducing the number of deaths?

DAVIS-YOUNG: It's still early to tell. Last year, heat-related deaths were reported all the way into October. So we have a lot of hot weather still ahead of us. Unfortunately, officials have already confirmed six heat-related deaths, and there are more than 100 other deaths under investigation so far this year. That's about 40% higher than where we were at the same point last summer, but this June was a little hotter than last.

FADEL: So we know these warmer-than-normal temperatures are going to be more common as climate change continues to drive more frequent and intense heat waves, and city and county officials get more worried when it's those 110-degree-plus days in Phoenix. I mean, how much of a difference does a few degrees matter?

DAVIS-YOUNG: Yeah, the county public health department has analyzed data on heat-related illnesses over five years, and they found the difference between, like, 110 degrees instead of 105 degrees results in a 76% increase in these cases of heatstroke or heat exhaustion.

FADEL: You said June was a little hotter this year than last. Last July, Phoenix set a record for the number of those 110-or-hotter days in a row. What does the forecast look like for this month?

DAVIS-YOUNG: Well, hopefully we won't have that really extreme - temperatures like we had last summer again, but the National Weather Service does say warmer-than-normal temperatures are likely for most of Arizona for the next few months.

FADEL: Katherine Davis-Young with member station KJZZ in Phoenix. Thank you, Katherine.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.