Effects of 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire explored at knowledge exchange forum

Researchers identify timing, funding and flexibility as key to providing long-term sustainable supports.

Nisa Drozdowski - 16 December 2019

As natural disasters occur more frequently, the need for researchers to respond becomes increasingly vital to understanding population needs, the ability to deliver services and the immediate and long-term effects of disasters on the health of residents, communities and first responders.

Lessons learned from the 2016 wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta was the focus of a two-day knowledge exchange forum organized and hosted by Stephanie Montesanti, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health. Montesanti was joined by six other researchers who investigated the effects of the disaster that impacted more than 90,000 people. The researchers were funded by a joint initiative between the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), Alberta Health, Alberta Innovates and Red Cross.

"The goal of this funding opportunity was to provide timely assessment of health effects and/or interventions to mitigate the harms and impacts of the wildfire and evacuation and build on Canada's emerging expertise in disaster medicine," explains Montesanti. "The forum brought researchers, policy and decision makers, service providers, and community partners together to talk about what we learned from the research, and to explore how we can apply the knowledge to inform future disaster-related health policy and service delivery that ultimately protects the health and wellbeing of people after events like the wildfire."

The event also provided an opportunity to build relationships and networks across the health, social and education sectors to address the long-terms health and mental health impacts from the wildfire. Participants at the event included delegates from Red Cross; CIHR Institute for Circulatory and Respiratory Health and Institute for Neurosciences, Mental Health & Addiction; Alberta Innovates; Alberta Health Services Strategic Clinical Networks™; Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo; the non-profit sector in Wood Buffalo; the Fort McMurray School Board; First Nation and Métis community members and services providers.

While the seven research teams examined different aspects of the wildfire's impacts, there was consensus on key issues around post-disaster research, namely timing, funding and flexibility.

Stephanie Montesanti"The timeline from call for research proposals to approval of funding took only four months. Typically the process takes longer," says Montesanti. "This was key to mobilizing researchers."

While the funding decisions were made quickly, Montesanti noted that dispersing funds to the universities and then finally into the hands of researchers did add more time to get teams on the ground and into the communities.

Funding for the research came from a new partnership. "This was the first time that CIHR partnered with Alberta Innovates, Alberta Health and Red Cross to fund research," explains Montesanti. "In fact, this was the first time Red Cross funded research, rather than collaborating on the research."

"A rapid response from stakeholders and funders is necessary to identify and address impacts as soon as possible after a disaster, but researchers need the flexibility in funding to work with those affected when they are ready to.

According to Montesanti, multi-year funding is important. "It's not unusual that after a period of 'getting back to normal' after experiencing such an event, issues start to arise," she says. "There are longer term impacts in the communities that we are just starting to see now. More resources allow us to focus on long term, sustainable supports for as long as they're needed."

The knowledge gathered through research in the region and at the exchange forum will inform the development of a policy framework that will support governments, health and service providers on how to best respond and support communities during, and after, disasters.

Of the seven researchers who received wildfire funding, five, including Montesanti, are from the University of Alberta.

Montesanti's work has been with Indigenous communities and organizations including Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre, Athabasca Tribal Council and McMurray Métis Local 1935. In collaboration, they developed a study to examine the health and mental health impacts from the wildfire on Indigenous residents and communities in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and to promote resilience.

She's learned that access to mental health services is a concern and that the wildfire compounded issues that already existed. Some of the solutions discussed included hiring more Indigenous health workers, putting resources back into the communities and engaging Elders to pass down traditional knowledge.

Other researchers are from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

Nicola Cherry and her team are studying respiratory illness and mental health among firefighters deployed to fight the wildfire. In protecting residents, they experienced a broad range of health and mental health consequences as a result of work-related exposures to natural disasters.

David Olson and his team have recruited a cohort of mothers who were pregnant or post-partum during the wildfire to study the health, social and economic stressors associated with negative pregnancy. His research has shown that pregnant and postpartum women experienced clinically significant post-traumatic stress disorder.

Peter Silverstone and his research team have surveyed school-aged children and adolescents to identify mental health risk factors. Children and adolescents are a vulnerable group to develop post-traumatic stress symptoms after natural or man-made disasters.

Chris Le and his team are examining the safety of traditional foods in Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan First Nation communities by comparing the concentrations of arsenic and other metals.

Additional researchers include Genevieve Belleville, Universite Laval and Arthur Chan, University of Toronto.