In early May 2016, wildfires swept through Fort McMurray and Northern Alberta destroying approximately 2,400 homes and buildings and forced the largest wildfires evacuation in Albertan history. Residents were ready to begin returning to Fort McMurray, when the premier announced that hundreds of undamaged homes in neighborhoods hardest hit by the wildfires were not safe to live in. Tests showed ash and soil in the area contained substances like arsenic and other heavy metals.
Natural disasters such as wildfires can have significant impacts on people's health, including exacerbating respiratory and cardiac conditions linked to poor air quality. The stress that the wildfires have placed on first responders, Albertans and their families, who have had to evacuate their communities or lost homes and businesses, can lead to mental health challenges like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As people begin to return home, there are also concerns about the long-term health impacts of exposure to toxic ash, environmental contaminants and on-going mental health stresses.
As communities undertake the long process of rebuilding from such an event it is important to ensure that local leaders, citizens, communities and employers are able to deliver the right kinds of evidence-based health actions to the right people at the right time to protect and improve health, safety and resiliency in both the short and long term. Due to climate change wildfires are expected to become more frequent, severe and extensive; therefore, we need to know how to respond to minimize adverse health outcomes.
Alberta Wildfires Research Funding Initiatives
Research supported through this funding opportunity is expected to contribute to our understanding of how contextual conditions may intersect with health actions to preserve health and promote health equity. Health equity is defined as the absence of unfair or unjust differences in health status. Health equity seeks to reduce inequalities and to increase access to opportunities and conditions conducive to health for all.
The funded teams are led or co-led by Alberta-based researchers affiliated with academic institutions in collaboration with scientific experts in disaster medicine (locally and nationally), decision-makers and affected communities embedded in the research project to ensure that relevant questions are addressed and actions are taken in a timely manner. Teams were encouraged to include collaborators from established groups and/or networks within the Alberta health system to assist in the translation of research findings into actions and to provide assurance that the research would not overwhelm or overburden the affected communities, or the individuals therein. Possible collaborators included but were not limited to the Alberta Health Services' Strategic Clinical Networks in Population, Public and Indigenous Health; Addiction and Mental Health; Maternal, Newborn Child & Youth and other similar research teams.
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