Fort McMurray wildfire firefighters sought for mental, physical health study

Click to play video: 'Researchers learn more about The Beast’s effect on firefighters'
Researchers learn more about The Beast’s effect on firefighters
WATCH ABOVE: Nearly one year after the Fort McMurray wildfire, University of Alberta researchers are looking for more firefighters to be part of their study into the impacts on firefighters' health since the fire. Su-Ling Goh reports. – Apr 19, 2017

Nearly a year after the devastating Fort McMurray wildfire, officials are continuing to study the impact the fire had on firefighters.

A team of researchers at the University of Alberta, led by Dr. Nicola Cherry, is looking for more of the 3,500 that helped fight “The Beast,” to help them get up-to-date, wider-ranging information for Phase 2 of their study. They’ve already tracked the progress of 355 firefighters so far as part of Phase 1 of their study.

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Last spring’s wildfire destroyed more than 2,400 homes and buildings, with an estimated financial impact of almost $8.6 billion.

One in six of the 355 firefighters studied said they were dealing with mental health issues, like anxiety and depression, in the three months that followed the wildfire. Researchers believe many may still be experiencing those issues, which is a big focus of Phase 2 of the study.

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“The tricky thing about mental health is that… the numbers can continue to increase probably about up to 12 months from the fire,” Cherry told Global News.

“So again, we really need to continue looking at the mental health issues.”

Cherry said many of the firefighters participating in the study said they felt they’d failed because they were unable to stop the fire before it burned so much of the northern Alberta town.

“Looking back on it, we can always ask, ‘what ifs’ — ‘What if we did something a little differently — would have the outcome changed?'” said 29-year-old Darren Akister, a firefighter from Strathcona Fire.

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Cherry said having more firefighters participate will help them better gauge that mental health impact – an area in which the researchers say they didn’t see the same improvement during the three-month period that they did with firefighters’ physical symptoms.

Mental health supports for firefighters were varied across the province, between fleets in large cities like Calgary, to small, volunteer firefighting fleets in smaller communities, something Cherry said they plan to factor into their research.

Physical effects could be long-lasting

In the days that immediately followed the fire, 40 per cent of firefighters that participated in Phase 1 had breathing problems. Those problems were still being felt by about 20 per cent of firefighters three months later.

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“It probably took a month or two to start feeling completely normal,” Akister said.

It’s expected that now, a year later, any firefighters that are still experiencing those issues will be dealing with them for a long time, Cherry said, but it’s hard to tell until Phase 2 is well underway.

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“I expect that number to go down, but not disappear completely,” she said. “I’m concerned to see what does happen to them going forward.”

Cherry said that in preparation for Phase 2, they also tried to get a good idea of how much exposure each firefighter had during the days they were in Fort McMurray.

The analysis of blood samples immediately after the fire showed that in the first four to five days of the fire, the exposure was “very high” for those fighting the fire — for some fighters, those markers were still there three months later.

“What we would really like is to get the much larger numbers of everybody who was deployed, so that we can look not only as the sort of bronchitis, which is the sort of effects we’re seeing at three months, but see if there are longer terms of chronic obstructive disease,” Cherry said.

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READ MORE: ‘These guys are working around the clock’: Alberta firefighters share what it’s like in Fort McMurray

In addition, Cherry said they don’t know how many of the firefighters wore the right masks, and for how much of the fire fight they were wearing them, as they are difficult to wear for hours on end during intense physical activity.

Akister said many of them had to take their masks off throughout the day to do every-day things like eating, which exposed them even more.

Cherry also said they plan to look at whether the fighters are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) two years out from the fire, as it can typically take time to develop.

Anyone interested in taking part in the study can email

— With files from Global’s Su-Ling Goh. 

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