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Firefighters in Fort McMurray blaze still suffering, study suggests

A wildfire burns as evacuees who were stranded north of Fort McMurray, Alta., head south of Fort McMurray on Highway 63 on May 6, 2016.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

A new study suggests that those who battled the massive wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., continue to suffer both physically and mentally nearly a year after the blaze devastated the community.

Preliminary results of a University of Alberta report say one in five firefighters who attended the wildfire reported respiratory problems.

One in six has been diagnosed with depression or anxiety.

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The study analyzed health records of 355 firefighters between six weeks to four months after the fire, which broke out in May 2016.

Participants reported coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath along with mental health challenges.

The fire forced more than 80,000 people in the Fort McMurray area to flee, destroyed more than 2,400 homes and other buildings, and had an estimated financial impact of almost $8.6-billion.

The report aims to offer an in-depth account of what firefighters endured during the months-long effort to quell the blaze and to develop strategies to minimize harm for first responders.

"Obviously it's taxing. Mentally, physically," Parkland County deputy fire chief Amber Coleman told CTV News. "Most of us still have that lingering cough, congestion."

With the first phase of the study complete, researchers plan to focus their second phase on firefighters' long-term health.

"Many people had access to the gear but by no means did everyone wear it," said Nicola Cherry, the epidemiologist who led the study. "The second question is about scheduling. Again, if you are a Fort McMurray firefighter and it's your home being burned down, you're not going to want to go and take rest breaks and be away from the fire."

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Firefighters are being asked to complete an online survey and share their medical records. The information, which is kept private, is then used to help researchers build a profile of who was affected, pinpoint areas of concern and offer solutions.

The recommendations could cover a gamut of firefighting protocol, from use of proper equipment to reasonable shift changes.

"Is it better to go in for 10 days and then have 10 days off, or is it better to go for two days and then have two days to recover?" Cherry said.

Coleman described the fire as "a war zone" and said that when it came to mental health, some less-experienced firefighters were surprised by the toll.

"I think I was a little bit prepared, whereas maybe some of the newer members weren't," she said. "We watched the members to make sure they have the outlet to talk about it, to ask questions, to seek help if they need it."

The research may prove to be an important reflection for future fires, which have come to be expected in Alberta during dry summer months.

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"It will happen again, and so (we should) prepare for when it does happen again," Coleman said.

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