The Current

From cancer to mental health, firefighters battle on long after the smoke clears

Some firefighters have welcomed Alberta's move to expand presumptive cancer coverage for the profession, but say first responders need help with their mental as well as physical health.

As wildfires ravage Alberta, firefighters point to pressure on mental, physical health

A man sits on the front bumper of a fire engine, with two children on his lap. They are all looking at the camera and smiling.
Lorne Miller with his two children. The Alberta man had had two bouts with cancer, which he believes are connected to his former role as a firefighter. (Submitted by Lindsay Skeans)

Read transcribed audio

A former firefighter who beat cancer twice has welcomed news that Alberta has made it easier for first responders to get workers' compensation coverage when they face the same disease.

"Cancer is a very, very expensive experience," said Lorne Miller, who is now the resilience officer for the Calgary Fire Department.

"It impacts all facets of life," he told The Current's Matt Galloway. "My wife is an entrepreneur, so that impacted her because she had to stop working and take care of me, and I went on long-term disability."

Miller became a firefighter in 2007, and was first diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma in May 2021. That summer, doctors removed a tumour the size of a volleyball from his abdomen — but his cancer returned in Nov. 2022. After another surgery, he is currently in remission.

At the end of March, royal assent was given to the Alberta legislature's Bill 9, also known as the Red Tape Reduction Statutes Amendment Act 2023. Part of the new legislation gives firefighters presumptive coverage for 20 types of cancer. That means firefighters don't have to prove a link between their diagnosis and their work, making it easier and faster to receive financial support from Alberta's Workers' Compensation Board.

WATCH | Firefighters push for better cancer protection:

Firefighters push for better cancer protection

6 months ago
Duration 2:06
Being a firefighter comes with a higher risk of cancer, but Canadian firefighters say they’re faced with a patchwork of support and protection.

Last year, firefighting was declared a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization's specialized cancer agency. The designation recognizes the job comes with the risk of certain cancers, through breathing in or ingesting toxins released in fires, as well as absorption through the skin.

Miller said he's "very confident" that his cancer diagnosis was connected to his line of work. But soft tissue sarcoma did not qualify for presumptive coverage before the new legislation was enacted in March. The new law is not retroactive, meaning previous diagnoses do not qualify.

Despite that, Miller said it brings him comfort to know that "more people will be taken care of in the future," particularly given increasing evidence that firefighters face a greater risk of cancer.

"Historically, when you think of the risks firefighters face, you know, it's chemical incidents, large-scale fires, house fires, all those types of things," he said. 

"Nowadays we're also learning that the fires can kill us well after they're been put out … through disease and mental health issues and stuff like that."

A man and woman sit outside with two children. They are all looking at each other and smiling.
Miller, right, with his wife Lindsay Skeans and their two children. (Submitted by Lindsay Skeans)

When Miller returned to work after his first surgery, he applied for the job of his fire department's resilience officer. He's passionate about the role, and thinks fire departments are taking issues around resiliency much more seriously these days. 

"We've sure made a lot of progress in the right direction in terms of mental health, resiliency and taking care of yourself," he said.

"That said, there's a lot of great things that can still happen and a lot more work that can be done."

Alberta fires put first responder 'on edge'

Wildfire season started early in Alberta this year. The province is battling dozens of blazes that have forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate.

Speaking to The Current last week, author John Vaillant said that climate change and the increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere have created "explosive conditions" for devastating wildfires.

"It dries out the landscape and heats it up, and so fire moves more quickly, more easily than it did a couple of decades ago," said Vaillant, author of Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast

LISTEN : Fire weather creating 'explosive conditions' for devastating blazes: author

"You really saw that in Fort McMurray when the fire was outside of town, and then literally within a matter of hours it was burning down neighbourhoods."

Firefighter Aaron Bowers helped fight those fires in Fort McMurray in 2016, and is helping to tackle the ones ravaging Alberta today.

"I've never seen Alberta in this kind of state in my life, but it definitely keeps you on edge," said Bowers, who is a primary care paramedic for Syncrude Emergency Services.

"You can see the potential of what could happen anywhere at any time."

A man in a firefighter's uniform sits on the step of a fire engine.
Aaron Bowers has been a firefighter for 15 years, and tackled some of the biggest blazes to hit Alberta. (Submitted by Aaron Bowers)

'Tough it out, suck it up'

Bowers said nothing could have prepared him for what he saw in the Fort McMurray fire, both in terms of the fire's ferocity, and the emotional toll of knowing what families were losing as their homes burned up in front of him. 

"I didn't really have time to feel anything until I could snap out of it," he said. "It hit me finally when I could reunite with my kids and my family."

He described the scene as being like a warzone with "nothing left but foundations of homes," where the fire created its own ecosystem, turning day into night. 

"I literally saw a flame jump in the air from one house, over my head and just ignite another house," he said. 

At one point he and his team had spent more than a day trying to beat the fire back from a water treatment plant in Anzac, and thought they were finally succeeding when the wind changed.

"30 hours straight, no sleep — seeing what you worked so hard to save and then the fire coming back in a matter of seconds because of a wind change," he said. 

"We had to pretty much run … that was, I think, my breaking point there."

WATCH | CBC Archives: Fighting the Fort McMurray fire in 2016:

'I don't consider myself a hero': Fort McMurray firefighter

7 years ago
Duration 6:37
'Everybody I work with has been holding me up and I've been holding them up, so I'm in the company of heroes' says Adam Bugden

Miller said conversations about the psychological toll of firefighting used to be more taboo.

"It was moreso, you know, kind of the old-school mentality of tough it out, suck it up, you know?" he said.

"This is what you signed up to do. If you can't cut it, beat it."

But he said that's changed in recent years, and his work on building resilience involves giving first responders the tools they need to meet those challenges. 

His team has access to a peer fitness team, who help to make sure firefighters are in the best physical shape they can be. There's also a critical incident stress management group, who check in with those who have responded to a call. 

"We try to encompass sort of all facets of life and make sure that if you're dealing with something at any point … we've got people there to answer those calls and help you navigate," he said.

"It allows them to be more resilient when they do go out and inevitably respond to these challenging situations."

Bowers said he's noticed that shift where he works too. 

"We're able to talk about how we feel after a call instead of being told to suck it up and move on," he said. 

"Firefighting is a brotherhood … we all have each other's backs, so if you just need to talk about it, I mean, that's the best thing you could do."

A house is consumed by fire, as a silhouetted figure in the foreground sprays water from a firehose.
Bowers was part of the crews fighting fires like this around Fort McMurray in 2016. (Submitted by Aaron Bowers)

'We sign up to help'

For Bowers, the positives outweigh the negatives in a job he loves.

"I think being able to help people is well worth it," he told Galloway.

"In the end we're all going to pass away, but [if] we can do it knowing that we did good in the world, then I mean, I'm fine with it."

Miller said that his bouts with cancer put his family through some tough battles, but he has absolutely no regrets. 

He said he joined the fire service in 2007, based on the best information available at the time, and believes he wouldn't be the person he is today without those experiences, good and bad.

"As first responders, we sign up to help and to give back," he said.

"I'm so proud of the contributions that we've been able to make to the city of Calgary while I've worked here, and to help people out on their worst day."

Audio produced by Magan Carty.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now