Study on Fort McMur­ray blaze sug­gests fire­fight­ers still suf­fer­ing

The Intelligencer (Belleville) - - NATIONAL NEWS - The Cana­dian Press

ED­MON­TON — A new study sug­gests that those who bat­tled the mas­sive wild­fire in Fort McMur­ray, Alta., con­tinue to suf­fer both phys­i­cally and men­tally nearly a year af­ter the blaze dev­as­tated the com­mu­nity.

Pre­lim­i­nary re­sults of a Univer­sity of Al­berta re­port say one in five fire­fight­ers who at­tended the wild­fire re­ported res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems.

One in six has been di­ag­nosed with de­pres­sion or anx­i­ety.

The study an­a­lyzed health records of 355 fire­fight­ers be­tween six weeks to four months af­ter the fire, which broke out in May 2016.

Par­tic­i­pants re­ported cough­ing, wheez­ing and short­ness of breath along with men­tal health chal­lenges.

The fire forced more than 80,000 peo­ple in the Fort McMur­ray area to flee, de­stroyed more than 2,400 homes and other build­ings, and had an es­ti­mated fi­nan­cial im­pact of al­most $8.6 bil­lion.

The re­port aims to of­fer an in­depth ac­count of what fire­fight­ers en­dured dur­ing the month­s­long ef­fort to quell the blaze and to de­velop strate­gies to min­i­mize harm for first re­spon­ders.

“Ob­vi­ously it’s tax­ing. Men­tally, phys­i­cally,” Park­land County deputy fire chief Am­ber Cole­man told CTV News. “Most of us still have that lin­ger­ing cough, con­ges­tion.”

With the first phase of the study com­plete, re­searchers plan to fo­cus their sec­ond phase on fire­fight­ers’ long-term health.

“Many peo­ple had ac­cess to the gear but by no means did ev­ery­one wear it,” said Ni­cola Cherry, the epi­demi­ol­o­gist who led the study. “The sec­ond ques­tion is about sched­ul­ing. Again, if you are a Fort McMur­ray fire­fighter and it’s your home be­ing burned down, you’re not go­ing to want to go and take rest breaks and be away from the fire.”

Fire­fight­ers are be­ing asked to com­plete an on­line sur­vey and share their med­i­cal records. The in­for­ma­tion, which is kept pri­vate, is then used to help re­searchers build a pro­file of who was af­fected, pin­point ar­eas of con­cern and of­fer so­lu­tions.

The rec­om­men­da­tions could cover a gamut of fire­fight­ing pro­to­col, from use of proper equip­ment to rea­son­able shift changes.

“Is it bet­ter to go in for 10 days and then have 10 days off, or is it bet­ter to go for two days and then have two days to re­cover?” Cherry said.

Cole­man de­scribed the fire as “a war zone” and said that when it came to men­tal health, some les­s­ex­pe­ri­enced fire­fight­ers were sur­prised by the toll.

“I think I was a lit­tle bit pre­pared, whereas maybe some of the newer mem­bers weren’t,” she said. “We watched the mem­bers to make sure they have the out­let to talk about it, to ask ques­tions, to seek help if they need it.”

The re­search may prove to be an im­por­tant re­flec­tion for fu­ture fires, which have come to be ex­pected in Al­berta dur­ing the dry sum­mer months.

“It will hap­pen again, and so (we should) pre­pare for when it does hap­pen again,” Cole­man said.


A gi­ant fire­ball is vis­i­ble as a wild­fire rips through the for­est by High­way 63, 16 km south of Fort McMur­ray, Alta., on May 7, 2016.

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