Fort McMurray firefighters who battled 2016 wildfire twice as likely to develop asthma: study

EDMONTON — A recent study from the University of Alberta has found firefighters who battled the Fort McMurray wildfire are twice as likely to develop asthma.

Researchers recruited more then 1,200 Alberta firefighters after the 2016 wildfire to assess long-term effects caused by long periods of particulate exposure.

“Those who were dealing with burning organic matter were exposed to a barrage of small particles in the smoke, and the ones with the highest exposure have long-term consequences,” Nicola Cherry, an occupational epidemiologist and the principal investigator, said.

According to Cherry, one-in-seven firefighters continued to have chronic issues after the blaze was extinguished. She said many of the firefighters didn’t have specialized lung protection equipment or were not able to wear it while fighting the wildfire.

“It’s very difficult to rush uphill pulling equipment behind you if you have a heavy mask on that doesn’t let you breathe,” she explained.

“The firefighters from Fort McMurray were the people that were there first, and it was their city, and they were very concerned to save as much of it as they could.”

Fort McMurray wildfire

Cherry told CTV News Edmonton she modelled her research on studies that followed the respiratory health of first responders following 9/11.

“It’s not easy to do this kind of study during a catastrophe,” she said.

“At the World Trade Center, 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.”


The U of A research team has looked at three main sources of evidence about the lung health in firefighters before and after a fire. They assessed health records, age, sex, geographic location and health status.

According to Cherry, the team also measured the firefighters’ lung function. Some of the firefighters with no history of chronic respiratory disease or smoking were randomly selected for clinical follow up, including CT scans and methacholine challenge testing, used to check for asthma.

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

Fort McMurray wildfire

As wildfire season ramps up during the summer months, Cherry told CTV News people become very dependent on the work of firefighters as they are essential in protecting all of us.

“You don’t want to put your essential workers in danger,” she said.

“They are young healthy people when they go in, and you want them to end the fire season as young healthy people.”

Cherry said she will continue to study the occupational health of firefighters in the hopes of recommending ways to make their work safer.

She’s now studying whether wearing a mask or washing skin more often could reduce exposure to chemicals from smoke.

“We are trying to come up with clinical indicators that could be helpful to firefighters whose lungs have been damaged.”

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