Smoke and health: Research into N.W.T.'s 2014 wildfire season

Dr. James Orbinski, a global health scholar contributing to research into the health impacts of the N.W.T.'s worst fire season, says it's important to hear from people who experienced the fires.

Summer of Smoke shares the experience of Yellowknives Dene during territory's worst fire season on record

The N.W.T. government borrowed money to pay for forest fire fighting costs in 2014. (Adrian Skok/Plummer's Lodge)

A researcher looking at the health impacts of wildfire smoke in the Northwest Territories during the summer of 2014 says anecdotal information is essential to understanding how local people coped.

Dr. James Orbinski, a global health expert and past president of Doctors without Borders, says researchers are gathering quantitative data about increases in asthma, cardiovascular illness and visits to health care providers during the fire season. 

"But what is really, really valuable about this project is the commitment to actually hearing the stories of individuals in communities as they lived the experience of the summer of smoke," he says. 

Dr. Orbinski is assisting local doctors, environmentalists and First Nations with a Health Canada-funded study looking at climate change and health adaptation in northern First Nation communities

He will be the guest speaker at a film screening and panel discussion tonight in Dettah. Summer of Smoke is a mini documentary about the impact of the 2014 fires on the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. 

The 2014 fire season was the worst on record in the territory, burning an area 57 per cent larger than average and costing the territory $55 million. 

Dr.Orbinski says the research could guide policy makers and help community leaders be better equipped to deal with the impacts of climate change-related events on health.

For example, he says communities need to develop strategies to ensure elderly people who can't leave their homes because of the smoke are not left alone and missing doctor's appointments. 

The other goal of the research is to raise overall awareness.

"For Canadians as a whole to understand that there are actual immediate, direct health impacts associated with this big phenomenon we call climate change," Dr. Orbinski says.

Tonight's free event takes place at Chief Drygeese centre in Dettah at 7 p.m.