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.

Fire that ordinarily helps the boreal black spruce forests now threatens them too

12:37 p.m. PDT Oct. 31, 2021

Swan Lake Fire Alaska
Black spruce burning in the Swan Lake Fire near Mystery Creek southwest of Anchorage, AK in 2019. Alaska DNR photo.

This is an excerpt from an article at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Warmer, drier conditions that lead to more frequent fires in Canada’s vast boreal forests are threatening the dominance of black spruce trees that for thousands of years thrived in a healthy relationship with forest fires.

Black spruce trees and the thick layer of peat they take root in are great fuel for the fires. So typically, every 100 years or so, a fire would sweep through and take out a stand of these iconic boreal trees.

That same fire would warm up the black spruces’ waxy cones, releasing its seeds that would allow the black spruce forest to regenerate.

But in recent years, climate change has undermined the healthy relationship between black spruce trees and forest fires. More frequent wildfires are pushing large areas of black spruce forests past their recovery point.

As a result they’re being replaced by other species, and sometimes the forest doesn’t regenerate at all.

“We do see evidence of shifts away from black spruce dominance in more than one third of the sites,” said Jennifer Baltzer, the Canada Research Chair in Forests and Global Change at Wilfrid Laurier University.

This shift away from black spruce dominated-forests could have far reaching implications for the wildlife that depend on them — like caribou — and for the massive amount of carbon these forests store underground.

Baltzer is the lead author of a new study that analyzed more than 1,500 former burn sites across the North American boreal forest, between 1989 and 2014.

“This is one study, in a growing body of evidence, that we’re pushing ecosystems toward these tipping points that we don’t really know what comes next,” Baltzer told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

A study evaluated the cultural safety of indigenous wildland firefighters in Canada

From a recently completed study in Canada:

Funded by Natural Resources Canada, a project provided preliminary data on cultural safety and occupational health and safety that is necessary to improve the understanding of Indigenous perspectives on wildland firefighting and wildland fire operations across what is now called Canada.

Wildland firefighting is a unique occupation. For decades, Indigenous (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit) firefighters and fire operations staff have been engaged in wildland fire suppression activities, formally and informally. They are increasingly being called upon by their communities and the broader wildfire management agency community in Canada to engage and deploy in various wildfire suppression and related duties. In the past decade, we have seen an increase in wildfire activity and the number of communities put at risk or impacted by high-intensity wildfire events. Due to the nature of this work, Indigenous Peoples engaged in wildland fire suppression activities routinely work in hazardous situations and stressful environments – impacting their physical, mental, and spiritual/cultural well-being.

Giving Voice to Cultural Safety of Indigenous Wildland Firefighters in Canada was a multidisciplinary, collaborative team-based project.

From January – July 2021, the Turtle Island Consulting Services Inc. (TICS Inc.) Project Team explored the following set of questions:

  • What are Indigenous wildland firefighters’ and wildland fire operations staff’s experiences regarding accident/injury rates, sickness presenteeism/absenteeism, chronic illness, close calls, racism/ discrimination/harassment?
  • What is currently working on the fireline and fire operation centres to promote cultural safety of Indigenous wildland firefighting personnel?
  • What are the priority needs/issues and recommendations for enhancing cultural safety for Indigenous wildland firefighting personnel?

The TICS Inc. Project Team developed an online survey and virtual circles were conducted specifically for individuals who self-identified as Indigenous and worked in wildland firefighting and/or fire operations for at least one fire season in Canada. These participant selection criteria supported the sharing of Indigenous Peoples’ voices in culturally safe spaces to help (i) increase the understanding of their jobs, (ii) enhance overall satisfaction from a cross-cultural perspective during this important work, and (iii) aid in making the future of wildland firefighting more enjoyable, safer, and culturally inviting.

For more information about Project findings, please view the following reports.

The Executive Summary is immediately below. Farther down you can click to download it or view it online .

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

Firefighting help arrives from Quebec

Canadian firefighters assist United States
Canadian firefighters arrive in the United States, September 8, 2021. Photo by Jennifer Myslivy, BLM

On Wednesday 40 firefighters from Quebec, Canada arrived in the United States to assist in suppressing wildfires.

In Boise they received an orientation briefing and fire shelter deployment training at the National Interagency Fire Center. The crews have since traveled to the Schneider Springs Fire on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Washington.

The National Wildfire Preparedness Level has been at 5, the highest level, for nearly two months. Currently, 99 large wildfires are burning across the western U.S., with 57 of them having a strategy of full suppression.

Smoke forecast, 11 pm MDT July 31, 2021

Smoke forecast
Smoke forecast for 11 p.m. MDT July 31, 2021.

For the last couple of days wildfires in Southern British Columbia have been producing large quantities of smoke which has been drifting into Alberta, North-central US, the American Midwest, and points further east. The forecast for Saturday night indicates this trend is continuing.

Clouds have made it difficult for satellites to photograph smoke coming from the Bootleg Fire in Oregon and the Dixie Fire in California.

Satellite photo smoke wildfires British Columbia Montana
Satellite photo showing smoke from fires in BC and Montana at 7:40 p.m. MDT July 30, 2021.

British Columbia bracing for very high temperatures as fires prompt evacuations

As of Wednesday night BC had 248 active fires, 36 of which were designated “fires of note”

Active wildfires and evacuation zones in Southern British Columbia
Active wildfires and evacuation areas in Southern British Columbia, 7 a.m. PDT July 30, 2021. The red lines represent wildfire perimeters. BC Wildfire Service.

British Columbia is having another year with higher than average wildfire activity due to hot, dry weather in recent weeks.

British Columbia Public Weather Alerts, 7 a.m. PDT July 30, 2021
BC Public Weather Alerts, 7 a.m. PDT July 30, 2021.

On Thursday in Lytton, BC the temperature reached 47.9 degrees Celsius (118F), the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada.

Hot weather is expected to continue through Saturday with many areas in the southern part of the province under Weather Alerts for heat where temperatures could reach or exceed 37 degrees Celsius (100F) while the relative humidity will be in the teens. The wind will be moderate in most areas, 5 to 7 mph with gusts to 8 or 10 mph.

Forrest Tower, a spokesman with the wildfire service, said, “We may get a bit of a break from the wind as this ridge kind of has a stable air mass over these fires, but the added challenge is that even if it may not be strong winds, any wind will have a significant influence on these fires.”

June’s extreme heat affected the fatality rate in BC. From the CBC July 29, 2021:

B.C.’s chief coroner has confirmed the majority of people who died suddenly during the week of June’s record-breaking heat wave lost their lives as a direct result of the extreme temperatures.

Lisa Lapointe confirmed in an interview Thursday morning that 570 of the 815 sudden deaths recorded over that time period — 70 per cent — have now been deemed “heat related.”

“[If not] for the extreme heat, they would not have died at that time,” Lapointe said during an interview with CBC’s The Early Edition.

According to Lapointe, 79 per cent of those who died were 65 or older.

As of Wednesday night BC had 248 active fires, 36 of which were designated “fires of note” that were highly visible or posed a potential threat to public safety. The 3,693 personnel assigned to the fires includes 316 from out of the province and Australia.

Currently there are 62 evacuation orders in effect for 3,443 properties.

For weeks the fires in BC have been producing dense smoke that generally spreads to the east and occasionally into the United States.

Here is the smoke forecast for 9 p.m. MDT July 31, 2021.

Smoke forecast
Smoke forecast for 9 p.m. MDT July 31, 2021.