Study finds that short-term exposure to smoke from 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta affected lung function

Equipment more sensitive than a conventional spirometer was able to detect lung damage

Horse River Fire Alberta, Canada 2016
A police officer walks past burned homes in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada May 5, 2016. AFP photo / Alberta RCMP / HO

A study on the health of Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers who were deployed in Alberta, Canada in 2016 to the Horse River Fire at Fort McMurray found that their airway function was compromised in the first three months after deployment. An analysis of health data from 218 officers revealed that the small airways in their lungs underwent structural changes after they were deployed, potentially increasing their risk for respiratory diseases in the future. The median exposure duration of the officers was eight days.

“We cannot tell from our study whether it’s long-lasting damage, but we do know from other studies that if people are exposed to high levels of particulate matter in the air, they are more likely to suffer from long-lasting damage to the lungs,” said Paige Lacy, professor of medicine at the University of Alberta and former director of research for the Alberta Respiratory Centre.

The Horse River Fire caused the largest evacuation in Canadian history, with more than 80,000 people rapidly removed from the community as fires encroached on the city. Hundreds of RCMP members were sent to the community to assist with the evacuation and to secure the area in the following days. The fire burned 589,552 hectares (1.4 million acres) in 2016 and destroyed 2,400 structures. The extreme fire behavior created lightning in the pyrocumulonimbus cloud atop the smoke column that started a number of new wildfires 40 kilometers (26 miles) ahead of the main wildfire front according to a report released in June of 2017.

Horse River Fire Alberta
These two fires started at about the same time on May 1, 2016 near Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. On the left is the MMD-004 fire inside the city limits of Fort McMurray. The Horse River Fire, often referred to as the Fort McMurray Fire, is on the right.

Subtle changes in lung function detected
The lung-function data were gathered as part of a larger study being conducted by Synergy Respiratory and Cardiac Care, looking at the health of RCMP officers dispatched to the Fort McMurray wildfire. According to the researchers, the subtle differences in lung function that were found were not measurable using traditional lung-function tests, and could only be observed through the use of more sensitive instruments. Researchers employed both spirometry and body plethysmography testing methods.

“Small airways are potentially more vulnerable and there is no way that a spirometer (a device commonly used to measure lung function) can detect the progression of their damage over time,” said Subhabrata Moitra, first author on the study and a post-doctoral fellow in the U of A’s Division of Pulmonary Medicine. “So if we use highly sensitive instruments, we can immediately get some signals whether there are any acute yet subtle changes caused by physiological factors or occupational or environmental hazards.”

The researchers noted that because the officers only came in for testing once after being deployed, they were not able to observe potential recovery of lung function or measure long-term damage.

The authors of the study pointed out the importance of having a health-surveillance program in place so responders who are exposed to such hazards can have their health monitored.

Survey finds that firefighters also complained of respiratory issues
A survey found that some firefighters who fought the fire at Fort McMurray also battled respiratory and mental health issues.

Below is an excerpt from a 2017 CBC news article:

The University of Alberta study surveyed 355 firefighters and found a “very large proportion” of them complained of respiratory issues including coughing, breathlessness, wheezing and chest tightness in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

“When we saw them later, probably about one in five of those still had problems with their chests that they felt had been caused or made worse by the fire,” said Nicola Cherry, the epidemiologist leading the study.

And they’re battling more than just physical ailments — mental-health issues affect one in six of study participants.

“When we collected this information, it was early days and people may develop bigger issues as time goes forward,” Cherry said.

Our Take
It is likely that wildland firefighters are routinely exposed to far higher concentrations of smoke and for longer periods of time than the RCMP officers at Fort McMurray. It is important that agencies who employ wildland firefighters establish a health-surveillance program that includes lung function tests using methods such as body plethysmography that are much more sensitive than a conventional spirometer.

Helicopter pilot killed in crash while fighting wildfire in Alberta

There were no other personnel on board

The pilot of a helicopter that crashed while fighting a fire in Alberta, Canada was killed when the Bell 212 went down Monday evening. It occurred on a fire near the community of Evansburg. The body of the pilot, the only person on board, was recovered Monday.

The pilot’s family has been notified.

From CBC news:

Emergency crews were called to the scene around 6:30 p.m. after RCMP received a 911 call reporting the crash. Evansburg RCMP, EMS, firefighters and Alberta Wildfire responded to the site in a remote area west of Highway 22 and north of Highway 16 in Yellowhead County.

The location is not accessible by road and police were brought to the scene by aircraft.

Logan said the terrain of the remote crash site was “difficult” but witness accounts helped first responders narrow their search for the wreckage.

“It wasn’t an exhaustive search because many eyewitnesses saw the helicopter go down,” Fraser said.

RCMP are cooperating with Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigators who are taking charge of the investigation, Logan said.

Our sincere condolences go out to the pilot’s family, friends, and co-workers.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Matthew.

Some of Alberta’s largest wildfires from 2019 were extinguished this fall

After burning for about 18 months

Alberta fires of 2019 extinguished fall of 2020

Alberta Wildfire posted the above on November 3, 2020.

The Chuckegg Creek Fire in the northwest part of the province burned 820,000 acres according to Wikipedia. It apparently burned for about 18 months. Fires burning in heavy fuels can sometimes continue smoldering in roots or stump holes under a blanket of snow throughout the winter, then emerge in the spring or summer.

wildfires in Northern Alberta May 28, 2019 Satellite photo
Satellite photo showing the location of wildfires in Northern Alberta May 28, 2019. Click to enlarge.

Alberta hired an additional 200 wildland firefighters this year

An Incident Management Team developed a response plan for the COVID-19 pandemic

fire camp in Alberta
A fire camp in Alberta. Photo by Alberta Wildfire.

Alberta Wildfire has hired an extra 200 firefighters for the 2020 season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their objectives in wildfire suppression remain to contain the spread of a fire spread by 10:00 a.m. the following day, and to initiate suppression before the fire exceeds two hectares (4.9 acres) in size.

Like their counterparts in the United States, the agency tasked an Incident Management Team to develop a response plan to ensure they can safely and effectively manage wildfires during the pandemic. They reviewed how the agency fights wildfire and adopted best practices on physical distancing, hygiene, travel, and isolation.

All firefighters will complete a screening form prior to starting each shift.

Special procedures have been established for fire camps:

  • There will be greater availability of hand washing stations at all wildfire facilities.
  • Surfaces in washrooms and common areas will be cleaned more frequently.
  • The number of people gathering in one location will be limited (for example: outdoor dining will be encouraged).
  • Physical distancing measures will be observed where possible. Training will be conducted by webinar and in smaller groups rather than in one large central location.
  • Buffet-style meals will be discontinued. Food will instead be plated and served, or individually bagged.
  • Staff quarters will be reduced to single room occupancy in permanent camps or single occupancy tents.
  • The use of contracted camps, hotels and tents will be increased to supplement our operations when needed.
  • When traveling in vehicles and helicopters, where physical distancing is not an option, additional precautionary measures will be taken, including ensuring all parties wear appropriate facial covering/non-medical masks.
  • New protocols will ensure equipment and frequently-touched surfaces in vehicles and helicopters are sanitized regularly.
  • Camp contractors must meet new requirements to protect staff. This includes requirements for meal service and cleaning, as well as providing additional facilities and equipment as needed to reduce the risk of contamination.
  • The health of staff will be monitored regularly and those suspected of infection will be immediately isolated and treated.

A fire ban was introduced in the Forest Protection Area of Alberta as well as in Alberta Provincial Parks to reduce the number of human-caused wildfires and help firefighters focus on existing wildfires. An off-highway vehicle restriction was also introduced using a phased approach based on hazard. The fines for not complying with a fire ban or OHV restriction were doubled, to further reduce the number of human-caused wildfires.

Alberta firefighters social distance
Photo by Alberta Wildfire.

In addition to these deterrents, the Government of Alberta announced an investment of $5 million to create an extra 200 firefighting positions. An additional $20 million in FireSmart funding was announced to go towards projects that will reduce the risk to communities caused by wildfire.

Increasing fire weather severity expected to bring extreme conditions to areas of Canada’s western provinces

Conditions in June and July are expected to be well above average.

Canada Fire Weather Severity forecast May, 2020

Forecasts are showing that fire weather severity in the western provinces of Canada will be increasing in May, and by June will be in the Extreme category in large areas of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Northwest Territories.

Conditions in June and July are expected to be well above average, according to data from the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System provided by the Canadian Meteorological Centre, a branch of Environment Canada.

Canada Fire Weather Severity forecast June, 2020 Canada Fire Weather Severity forecast July, 2020

Alberta to hire 200 additional wildland firefighters

The government will also fund $20 million in community FireSmart initiatives to prepare for fire season during COVID-19

firefighters Chuckegg Creek Fire
File photo of firefighters on the Chuckegg Creek Fire in northern Alberta, May 27, 2019. The fire burned more than half a million acres. Photo: Alberta Wildfire.

Alberta Wildfire is hiring 200 additional firefighters, invoking a fire ban, implementing off-highway vehicle restrictions, increasing fine violations, and funding $20 million more in community FireSmart initiatives, all to prepare for the upcoming wildfire season during COVID-19.

Alberta Parks is also instituting a fire ban in all provincial parks and protected areas.

Alberta Wildfire said these early preparedness measures will ensure the province can effectively focus resources where they are needed most in the event of multiple emergencies happening at the same time.

Typically, the wildfire hazard is highest in Alberta in late April through May, when trees and shrubs have extremely low moisture content after the snow has melted.

More than a million acres burned last year and 71 per cent of wildfires were human-caused and entirely preventable. With provincial resources currently stretched due to COVID-19, these preventative measures will better equip Alberta’s response to spring wildfires this year.

Increased firefighting resources
An additional $5 million investment is being made to hire and train 200 firefighters to assist with provincial wildfire suppression this season.

More than 800 seasonal firefighters will join 370 year-round staff at Alberta Wildfire. These resources are hired at one of the 10 Forest Areas, and are moved throughout the Forest Protection Area as required.

Conversely, the five federal United States agencies with wildfire responsibilities have not announced any major new initiatives that would significantly increase the number of firefighting or fire prevention resources.