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Tracking heat-related deaths in Southern Arizona

Pima County Medical Examiner shows the dangers of extreme heat by re-defining heat-related deaths
Posted at 6:49 PM, Jul 02, 2024

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — As temperatures continue climbing in the Sonoran desert, the heat shows just how dangerous it can be. Just last week, the heat claimed the lives of three migrants in Ajo, Arizona.

RELATED STORY: 5 migrants rescued, 3 dead in Ajo

Still, the extreme heat does not call for emergency federal funding. On June 17th, the Center for Biological Diversity urged FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to change this.

FEMA provides funding for areas affected by tornadoes, hurricanes, and flooding, but extreme heat took the lead in 2023 for the deadliest natural hazard. The number of heat-related deaths in 2023 surpassed the combined total of deaths caused by tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods, according to the National Weather Service.

In addition, 2023 was also the warmest year on record. Earth's average temperature climbed to 59°F, NASA confirmed. Last year was also when the Pima County Medical Examiner office changed how it kept track of heat-related deaths.

The data dashboard divides heat deaths into three categories: heat-caused, heat-contributed, and heat-related.

Heat-caused deaths are directly caused by heat, like hyperthermia. Heat-contributed deaths include those in which heat may not be the direct cause, but still contributed in causing the death.

"Maybe we have an unhoused person who's found deceased in a park," explained Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Greg Hess, "the death might officially be due to an overdose, however, sometimes, in some circumstances, we believe heat may have contributed.”

The heat-caused and heat-contributed deaths are grouped into one category: heat-related deaths. This clarifies how many people died because of the heat across areas of Southern Arizona.

Between Pima and Maricopa counties, the data showing the death toll of extreme heat brings Arizona to the forefront of the problem. Dr. Hess explained how this method of data collection could help bring more federal funding to the state.

“I think it would be helpful for the government to understand how this is a burden, and where. And maybe help them determine what resources they need to expend to look at this as a problem," said Dr. Hess. "And if you don’t know the totality of the problem, it’s difficult to ask those questions."

The data collected continues to show the dangers of extreme heat, while the Center for Biological Diversity and other organizations push for change.

Reyna Preciado is a reporter for KGUN 9, she joined the KGUN 9 team in July of 2022 after graduating Arizona State University. Share your story ideas with Reyna by emailing or by connecting on Instagram, or Twitter.