Health impacts of smoke from wildfires call for more preparation as well as more research

Reports of the heat, drought and wildfires in the U.S. this summer are alarming, but Canada is also at risk. Though conditions are not as extreme as the U.S., British Columbia is under a warning for a prolonged heat wave, wildfire evacuations have already begun in Alberta,and Ontario’s wildfires are so much more numerous than normal that Alberta has responded to the province’s appeal for more firefighters. Against this backdrop, the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA) released a report in early June: The Limits of Livability – The emerging threat of smoke impacts on health from forest fires and climate change.  Accompanying the main report are country briefs specific to  Australia , Brazil and Canada.  The  overview report documents the impacts of wildfires, emphasizes how unprepared we are, and warns that governments must act to prepare public health systems for the health impacts of recurring air pollution episodes. Lead author Dr. Frances MacGuire states : “The short term health effects of forest smoke are now well documented but the long term effects of extended exposure are unknown. It is clear that there are significant research gaps in understanding the full health impacts of smoke from increased wildfire risk in a warming world, and on primary and secondary health services.” 

The Country Brief for Canada  provides health statistics about the 2018 B.C. wildfires and the Summer of Smoke around Yellowknife Northwest Territories in 2014. One of the detailed medical papers referenced  is SOS! Summer of Smoke: a retrospective cohort study examining the cardiorespiratory impacts of a severe and prolonged wildfire season in Canada’s high subarctic, which appeared in  BMJ Open in 2021. The authors of the Country Brief call for greater urgency to combat climate change, as well as specific calls to 1. Strengthen the pan-Canadian emergency response, 2.  develop easy to understand emergency response plans for residents and communities, and 3.  Tackle inequalities in smoke exposure, including recognition of greater vulnerability of Indigenous people living in remote areas.   

Australia’s disastrous wildfires of 2019/20 resulted in a Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Management Arrangements (also known as the Bushfire Royal Commission), and much of the Australia Country Brief summarizes the issues covered by the commission – notably, Indigenous practices and knowledge.  (Note that the Terms of Reference for the Commission included firefighter safety and training).  The Brief reports that the  Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has secured funding for a large-scale research project to study the medium-term health impacts of smoke and ash exposure, including mental health, for frontline responders and affected communities.

The Brazil Country Brief  is centred on the role of deliberate fires set for land clearance for agriculture. The Brief calls for a moratorium on deforestation and fires for clearing land, combined with strong supervision.

Climate change and health in Canada

The Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg maintains the Climate Atlas of Canada, and on November 20  launched a new section of their website devoted to climate change and health in Canada.   So far, the webpages provide a general overview of the issues of air quality, diseases, extreme heat, and mental health  – supporteclimate-video.pngd by more detailed  articles – for example,  Climate Change, Air Quality, and Public Health ;  Wildfire Smoke and Health ; and a new 4-minutes video about wildfires, with impactful images which highlight the links between wildfires and mental health,  especially relating to first responders and medical providers.  The Prairie Climate Centre also published the Heat Waves and Health  report, released in August 2019, and now part of the new section.

Workers who respond to wildfires – some news you might have missed

The Columbia Journalism Review published an article on November 1: “What journalists miss when covering the California fires” . It states “we discuss celebrities and show pyro-pornography to capture attention. …. journalists could also use the borrowed interest to discuss bigger environmental consequences impacting people inside (and sometimes outside) of California.”

firefight in smokeHere are some articles which  focus on the impacts for working people in California and Canada, especially first responders and health care workers.  A previous WCR article,  “What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?”  appeared in December 2017, after the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta.

California:

At PG&E, a workforce on edge — and under attack — as fire season arrives” in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 8) describes how front line workers are suffering harassment because the public blames their employer, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for the 2018 Camp fire, as well as for the disruptions of their planned power outages to avoid sparking more fires.

A blog post  Power Shutoffs: Playing with Fire summarizes the issue of California power shutoffs and includes anecdotal reports from a  focus group study of home health care and nursing home workers, which  found that lack of communication was a common problem as they try to care for or evacuate their vulnerable patients.  The focus group was convened by the Emerald Cities Collaborative and SEUI2015.

Home healthcare in the Dark : Why Climate, Wildfires and Other Emerging Risks Call for Resilient Energy Storage Solutions to Protect Medically Vulnerable Households from Power Outages. This report published by Clean Energy Group and Meridian Institute in June 2019  identifies the problems associated with unreliable power when the electric grid goes down either through disaster or through  planned power outages to prevent wildfires. The report  makes a series of recommendations directed at policy makers, including:  “truly resilient power should be generated onsite, should not be dependent on supply chains that may be disrupted during catastrophic events”.

Getty fire: Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames” in the LA Times which also highlights the chaos brought by lack of communication, and the need for low-wage workers to work, despite danger.

International Association of Firefighters press release “California Members Work around the Clock to Contain Wildfires” provides an overview of  wildfire fighting by their members and points out that firefighters’ homes may also be in the path of destruction. (a fact that is true for other essential workers such as  health care workers).

“As fires rage, California refines an important skill: Evacuating” in the Washington Post (Oct. 29).  Describes the challenges of first responders responsible for vulnerable patients in hospitals.

New threats put wildfire fighters health on the line”  in the New York Times points out : “While burning wood poses some threat to lungs, man-made products and the gases and particles they produce when burned are far more dangerous…Unlike urban firefighters dealing with structural blazes, these wildfire responders do not wear heavy gear that filters air or provides clean air because the gear is unwieldy and too limited to allow the kind of multi-hour, high-exertion efforts demanded on the front lines of these large outdoor infernos.”

And from 2017, “Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical”” in Wildfire Today  , based on a more substantial article in The Atlantic: “A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides”

 

Canada:

Climate change is making wildfires in Canada bigger, hotter and more dangerous”  in Maclean’s (July 18 2019) is a quick overview of the Canadian experience.

We were blindsided: Rappel firefighters criticizes UCP for axing program  in the Edmonton Journal  (Nov. 7) and an article in the newspaper Fort McMurray Today react to the Alberta government cuts which will eliminate the 40-year-old rappelling program, which employs more than 60 firefighters who rappel from helicopters into forest fires. Staffing for close to 30 wildfire lookout towers and one air tanker unit will also be cut. The articles describe the dangerous job of fighting fires.

A  British Columbia government press release at the end of October 2019 announces two research projects underway to study  firefighter health and wellness (including its physical, mental and emotional dimensions).  One at the University of Northern B.C. is a scoping study to contribute to a long-term research strategy for worker health by the B.C. Wildfire Service. The second, supported by the government of Alberta,  is examining the nature and concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the air that firefighters breathe and accumulate on their skin. This study will also “explore the practicality and effectiveness of firefighters using respiratory protective equipment; and investigate whether wildland firefighters have more chronic lung disease than other people of the same age, gender and geographic location.” A progress report on the initial phase of this project is expected in March 2020.

“Fire-weary Western Canadians are picking up stakes and moving on” in the National Observer (June 24  2019)considers the impact of smoke as well as fire over the past two years in the West, discussing how “residents … young and old, often on fixed or limited incomes, are making tough choices about where they want to live and to work. The decisions are being informed by many factors, but often the most pressing concern is the increasing frequency of forest fires.”  (This updates some of the themes of a 2017 Globe and Mail article “Fort MacMurray wildfires leaves livelihoods in limbo” ).

Unions have made consistent and significant donations to wildfire-affected communities.  Some examples: “Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $69,000 to Fort McMurray Recovery” (2016); “Steelworkers Contribute $100,000 to B.C. Fire Relief” (August 2017),  and Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $58,950 to Support Disaster Recovery Here and Abroad (June 2019) –  which specifies a $10,000  donation to the  High Level Native Friendship Centre food bank in Northern Alberta after  forest fires caused  the evacuation of the town.  Also,  “Unifor wildfire relief donations top $220k” in 2017, and  a 2018 press release announced $150,000 to the B.C. Fire Relief Fund of the Canadian Red Cross in 2018 through Unifor’s Canadian Community Fund  as well as its Social Justice Fund .