Helping Fort McMurray firefighters breathe easier

Researcher receives special grant to look at how Alberta wildfires are affecting firefighters’ physical and mental health.


In early May 2016, firefighting crews from Fort McMurray and wildland firefighters in the area keeping an eye on what was thought to be a big but largely benign fire burning just southwest of the city suddenly found themselves engaged in a fierce and prolonged battle to save the city.

Within days, the original cohort was joined by dozens of fire crews from municipalities and wildland forces from around the province and beyond. All told, roughly 3,500 firefighters had a go at the blaze that became known as “The Beast.”

Albertans, almost to a person, jumped to the aid of those fleeing the carnage and those charged with fighting the blaze—none quicker than University of Alberta epidemiologist Nicola Cherry, who came in possession of a mobile respiratory testing unit the day before the fire started.

As a weary and worn first wave of firefighters from Strathcona County returned from the front lines, Cherry and her team met them to measure the toll heavy smoke and ash had taken on their respiratory system.

In the following weeks, Cherry’s team set up at a dozen precincts around the province and tested more than 350 firefighters.

“During the first few days it was clear that fighting that fire was very stressful, they weren’t getting any sleep, they were exhausted and often complained of breathing problems. The firefighters from Fort McMurray itself were often seeing their homes and the homes of people they know burn down. It was a very stressful experience.”

Understanding how these hardships—both mental and physical—are affecting those who fought the fire is at the heart of a special two-year, $500,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Red Cross, Alberta Innovates and other partners to fund research looking into the health effects of the Alberta wildfires on first responders.

Unlike the earliest respiratory tests done as firefighters returned, the proposed study hopes to contact every Alberta-based firefighter deployed to the fire, including both the structural firefighters and the wildland firefighters employed by Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

Cherry’s plan will include linking the personal health numbers of firefighters to Alberta administrative health records, for those who consent to this.

“We will be comparing with a cohort of people who were equally healthy before the fire who weren’t at the fire. Of the people who went to the fire, we want to know if they have any particular clusters of ill health that we didn’t see in comparison groups. Then, we’ll follow up every couple of years looking at mental health.”

Besides looking at health outcomes, Cherry said her group is interested in factors that may mitigate the effects, such as the type of masks firefighters were wearing and how long they were wearing them for.

“We are looking for the sort of things that could be changed at future fires,” she noted.

“On mental health, we are looking particularly at the support systems that were in place in the 50 or so forces throughout Alberta that sent people to the fire.

If one force seems to have something that is particularly good, we can recommend it to everybody else.”

As part of its commitment to help in the long-term recovery of residents of Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities, the Government of Canada, Alberta Innovates and the Canadian Red Cross have partnered together to fund a total of seven research projects—five led out of the U of A—worth $3.4 million.

Other UAlberta-led projects receiving funding

  • Peter Silverstone, Department of Psychiatry—The health effects of the Alberta wildfire and evacuation: Pediatric resiliency
  • Stephanie Montesanti, School of Public Health—Examining the impacts of wildfires on the health and well-being of Indigenous peoples and communities in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo
  • Chris Le, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology—Chemical contaminants in traditional foods from Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan: Before and after the wildfires
  • David Olson, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology—Intervention to improve perinatal outcomes following the 2016 Alberta wildfires: Administration, effectiveness and community implementation