Long-term damage to the mental and physical health of first responders, firefighters, and other survivors can be added to the ongoing toll of last year’s devastating wildfire in Alberta’s tar sands/oil sands region.
The fire broke out in early May and eventually forced the evacuation of all 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray. The size of the blaze and scale of the firefighting response soon exhausted local supplies of breathing apparatus and smoke mask filters. Nearly a year later, CBC News reports, “many firefighters who worked to save the city are facing lingering health problems, according to preliminary findings of new research.”
The study, led by University of Alberta epidemiologist Nicola Cherry, found that “one in five of the 355 firefighters surveyed reported persistent respiratory issues including coughing, breathlessness, wheezing, and chest tightness.” One in six are also affected by mental health issues. And Cherry thinks those percentages may rise.
“When we collected this information, it was early days,” she told CBC, “and people may develop bigger issues as time goes forward.” Cherry is seeking more subjects among fire survivors to expand her study.
Her group’s initial findings, however, appear to confirm a grim prognosis suggested last July by the president of the Fort McMurray branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters. “Realistically,” Nick Waddington said then, “a lot of our guys, their lives are going to be shortened because of this incident.”
Mega-fires are becoming more frequent in warmer and seasonally drier conditions brought on by climate change. “We can’t stop the fire happening, but we can make sure that we learn all the lessons that we possibly can so that people in the future won’t be put at risk in the same way,” Cherry said.
While some challenge its description as a “natural” disaster, there is no doubt that the Fort Mac fire was the most expensive conflagration yet for Canadian property owners and insurers, with insured losses estimated at $3.58 billion.