Firefighters who couldn’t wear their usual breathing apparatus while battling the massive Fort McMurray wildfire are already beginning to report health problems, and may live shorter, less healthy lives as a result of the experience, Canadian Press reported last week.
“Realistically, a lot of our guys, their lives are going to be shortened because of this incident,” said Nick Waddington, president of the Fort McMurray branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “When you compound that with everything that we’re going to have in our careers, we’re definitely going to be in a high risk.”
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Waddington said some of the 180 local firefighters involved with the blaze have already developed a persistent cough, and have been referred for lung and blood tests. Individual results will be kept private, but the crew members “will need ongoing support and possible treatment for serious illnesses over the next 10 to 20 years,” writes CP reporter Chris Purdy.
As the wildfire spread, more than 2,200 firefighters from other jurisdictions arrived to join the fight, Purdy notes. “But the hometown crew was there first, working around the clock, when the forest fire morphed into an urban blaze and moved from timber to buildings with toxins in vinyl siding, treated lumber, and furniture.”
Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen said municipal firefighters usually wear self-contained breathing apparatus with air tanks that last about an hour. That’s enough gear to fight a single house fire. But as the Fort Mac fire spread, “we didn’t have time to get back to the hall to charge” the tanks, he told CP. So crews “would have been out there for long periods of time sucking in the smoke.”
Forest crews have access to particulate masks, and limited local supplies were replenished a few days after the fire hit the city. But the filters in the masks make it harder to breathe and can get clogged, and they can produce fog on safety glasses and visors. So even when the masks were available, not all firefighters used them.
Peter Krich, president of the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association, said many firefighters’ first impulse is to do what it takes to get the job done, without thinking about their own health. “We have to learn,” he told CP. “Hopefully we can…be more prepared or help each other better in the event of something of this nature happening ever again.”
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