Very large flames and heavy smoke surrounded congested Highway 63 South, during the sudden evacuation of Fort McMurray in 2016. Wikipedia Commons License, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Landscape_view_of_wildfire_near_Highway_63_in_south_Fort_McMurray.jpg
24 Apr 2024

Study shows firefighters in the 2016 Fort McMurray mega fire have sustained permanent lung damage


"They take enormous risks... This study shows clearly that it is possible for exposures to cause changes in the lung that don’t get better over time.”

A study made by the University of Alberta shows that firefighters in the 2016 Fort McMurray forest fire have sustained lasting lung damage from fighting the fire without always having access to breathing apparatuses or other adequate protection. 


On May 1, 2016, a wildfire began southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. On May 3, it forced the largest wildfire evacuation in the history of the province of Alberta,  as reported by Wikipedia. The wildfire destroyed approximately 2,400 homes and buildings. 

Almost 88,000 people were evacuated with very quick notice. 

Another 2,000 residents in three communities were displaced after their homes were declared unsafe for reoccupation due to contamination. 

The total costs for the fire is estimated at $9,9 billion CAD, which is the costliest disaster in Canadian history. 


Ran out of breathing protection

Lessons learned from the fire show that the fire services ran out of air and filter masks long before the fire was under control, and many firefighters did their work in part with inadequate protection.

A 2021 study by a University of Alberta occupational health research team reveals that firefighters who battled the massive Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016 are still grappling with persistent lung damage.

Lead investigator Nicola Cherry, an occupational epidemiologist and professor of medicine, stated, “Those engaged in combating the blaze faced a continuous onslaught of minute particles from burning organic materials, and those with the highest levels of exposure are experiencing lasting effects.”

Compared to the general population, these firefighters had more than double the risk of developing asthma. Additionally, their lung function tests revealed various changes indicating an impact on their respiratory systems, such as increased lung hyperreactivity and thickening of the bronchial wall.

Cherry emphasized, “The impact was correlated to exposure—those who had more exposure had more effects.” 


Monitored over 1200 firefighters

Over a span of three years following the fire, Cherry’s team monitored 1,234 Alberta firefighters. Their exposure to fire-related particles was calculated based on factors such as their hours worked during the blaze, dates of involvement, specific firefighting duties, and Alberta Environment's estimates of particulate matter in different areas


Had access to a mobile lung assessment lab

Cherry's study, supported by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and the Government of Alberta, was inspired by research conducted on the respiratory health of first responders after the World Trade Center collapse in New York City in September 2001.

“It’s not easy to do this kind of study during a catastrophe," Cherry remarked, noting that she fortuitously received a mobile lung assessment lab the week prior to the Fort McMurray fire.

She pointed out the difference in exposures: "At the World Trade Center (9/11) the exposure was mainly to inorganic dust, whereas in Fort McMurray it was burning vegetation, as well as buildings.It’s interesting that we saw similar results from very different exposure.”

Cherry's team gathered evidence on the firefighters' lung health before and after the fire through three main avenues. Firstly, they obtained permission to access administrative health records, detailing doctors' visits and diagnoses. Each firefighter's records were matched with five individuals from the general population of similar age, sex, geographic location, and health status to serve as a comparison group.

Secondly, the team assessed the firefighters' lung function, which provides insight into the amount of air moving in and out of the lungs. Finally, firefighters without a history of chronic respiratory disease or smoking were randomly selected for clinical follow-up, including lung CT scans and methacholine challenge tests, used to detect asthma.


Has studied both mental and physical impacts of this mega fire

This study is one of several papers Cherry has published on the mental and physical well-being of Fort McMurray firefighters.

"They take enormous risks," she emphasized. “This study shows clearly that it is possible for exposures to cause changes in the lung that don’t get better over time.”


Cherry plans to continue researching the occupational health of firefighters, including those currently battling wildfires in British Columbia and Alberta, with the aim of proposing measures to enhance safety. She is investigating whether wearing masks or more frequent skin washing could reduce exposure to smoke-related chemicals. Additionally, she suggests that rotating more crews for shorter durations at fire scenes might mitigate health impacts.

"We're working on identifying clinical markers that could benefit firefighters with lung damage, such as the combination of bronchial reactivity and thickening observed in this study," Cherry concluded.



Photo Credit:  Very large flames and heavy smoke surroundedthe  congested Highway 63 South, during the sudden evacuation of Fort McMurray in 2016. Wikipedia Commons License.