U of A study focuses on health of firefighters after Fort McMurray wildfire

University of Alberta researchers have received half a million dollars in funding to study how battling the Fort McMurray wildfire affected the health of firefighters.

Researchers want every firefighter involved in the historic blaze to participate in study

A University of Alberta study will look at how the Fort McMurray wildfire affected the health of those who fought it last May. (Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

University of Alberta researchers have received a $500,000 grant to study how the Fort McMurray wildfire affected the health of firefighters.

Epidemiologist Nicola Cherry says phase one of the research tested the respiratory health of 350 Alberta firefighters in the weeks after the fire.

The new grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) will be used to further study the physical and mental health of many more of the 3,500 firefighters who fought the fire.

Cherry said the first phase of the study focused on firefighters' lung function in the immediate aftermath of the fire. 

"For some of them, we collected blood and urine so we could look at markers of exposure," Cherry said. "And obviously asking them about their mental health, their spiritual health, and the sorts of exposures they had.

"The more exposure people had, as you might expect, the worse their health was at that point."

For the second phase — which will span the next two years — Cherry hopes to contact every firefighter and woodland firefighter involved in fighting the wildfire. 

Cherry and her team will compare firefighters' current health to their health records, if they consent. Their current health will also be compared to a group of people who were equally healthy before May 2016 but did not fight the wildfire. 

Researchers want to see if firefighters have any patterns of illness not seen in the comparison group. Then, they'll follow up over the next couple of years in researching firefighters' mental health. 

'The key thing now is for people to sign up'

The goal is to identify the effects equipment, working hours and available support had on firefighters and how those might be improved for firefighters who face similar working situations in the future. 

"We are very pleased to have gotten this funding," Cherry said. "The key thing now is for people to sign up and join the study while they've got clear memories of what happened during the fire, so we can get those recorded as soon as possible."

Anyone interested in participating can sign up online for the Fort McMurray wildfire study for those who fought the fire within the city, or the Horse River wildfire study, for woodland firefighters.