Continuing to support recovery after the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires

Government of Canada partners with Government of Alberta and Canadian Red Cross to fund 7 research projects focused on health impacts of Alberta wildfires

OTTAWA, March 14, 2017 /CNW/ - Almost a year after the worst natural disaster in Canada's history, the residents of Fort McMurray, Alberta, are continuing to rebuild their lives, and come to grips with the physical, mental and environmental impacts of the wildfires and evacuation. 

As part of its commitment to help in the long-term recovery of residents of Fort McMurray and the surrounding communities, the Government of Canada announced today the seven research projects to be funded through a $3.4M partnership between the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Canadian Red Cross, Alberta Innovates and other partners.

Natural disasters such as wildfires can take a significant toll on people's mental and physical health. The projects announced today will inform policy for recovering from a natural disaster by adding to what we know about cleaning up the toxic effects of wildfires and the related health impacts. They will also help expecting mothers and newborns cope with the stress of living through a natural disaster, and ensure first responders and residents of Fort McMurray and surrounding areas – including Indigenous communities – impacted by the wildfire receive the right mental health supports.


"The research projects announced today are crucial for adding to what we know about how best to help those working through the fear and stress of evacuating a natural disaster zone, losing their homes and rebuilding their lives. The Government of Canada continues to be committed to helping the residents of Fort McMurray recover and rebuild."

The Honourable Jane Philpott
Minister of Health

"As a resident of Alberta, a practicing emergency physician, and a health researcher based in the province, I'm pleased that the Canadian Institutes of Health Research were able to work with the Canadian Red Cross, Alberta Innovates and other partners to fund these seven important research projects. This research will ensure we can provide the right treatments to the residents of Fort McMurray and surrounding areas, including local Indigenous communities, and the first responders who risked their lives."

Dr. Brian Rowe
Scientific Director of the CIHR Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health

"The Government of Alberta continues to work with our partners to make health and wellness supports available to Albertans affected by last May's wildfire. We are committed to providing appropriate resources to protect the well-being and resilience of all residents and to alleviate the strain on front-line providers now and into the future. This research will help us understand how best to meet those needs."

The Honourable Brandy Payne, Associate Minister of Alberta Health  

"Improving the health and wellbeing of Albertans is paramount for Alberta Innovates. We are proud to participate in this timely initiative that has, at its heart, the needs of Albertans."

Laura Kilcrease, CEO, Alberta Innovates

Quick Facts

  • The wildfires that affected Fort McMurray and other communities in northern Alberta in May 2016 forced up to 90,000 people to evacuate and destroyed more than 2,400 homes.
  • The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo is home to a large population of First Nations and Métis peoples living in reserves and settlements, and in urban Fort McMurray. The building that housed the Métis Local 1935 and Athabasca Tribal Council, which provide vital services to Métis and First Nations in Wood Buffalo, were also lost.
  • More than 25,000 people in Fort McMurray have reached out for mental health support as a result of the wildfires, according to Alberta Health Services.
  • Natural disasters such as wildfires can have significant impacts on peoples' health, including leading to mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and the development or recurrence of addictions, as well as physical illness caused by poor air quality and exposure to toxic ash.

Associated Link

  • Backgrounder (research projects)

At the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) we know that research has the power to change lives. As Canada's health research investment agency, we collaborate with partners and researchers to support the discoveries and innovations that improve our health and strengthen our health care system.

Alberta Innovates delivers 21st century solutions to the most compelling challenges Albertans face. Building on our province's strengths in environment, energy, health, food, fibre and emerging technology sectors, we work with our partners to diversify Alberta's economy, improve our environmental performance, and enhance our well-being. Through Alberta Innovates you can access technical expertise, the opportunity to establish new partnerships, and secure funding that will catalyze innovation. We support a broad range of research and innovation activity – from discovery to application. Partner with us to innovate faster.


Continuing to support recovery after the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires – research projects

Read the news release


Funding amount

Project details

Dr. Geneviève Belleville, Université Laval


Dr. Belleville and her team will aim to understand the mental health needs of the people of Fort McMurray and make widely available tools to help alleviate peoples' psychological distress and promote resilience. The data generated from this study will be used by the province's health authorities to develop mental health services that meet the needs of different members of the community.

Dr. Arthur Chan, University of Toronto


Dr. Chan will lead a team that will determine whether or not the residual ash from the fires will pose health risks to the people of Fort McMurray and surrounding areas. The team will collect indoor dust from homes and outdoor ash samples and measure the concentration of known toxic compounds that can cause lung diseases at high enough concentrations.

Dr. Nicola Cherry,

University of Alberta


Dr. Cherry and her team will follow career, part-time and volunteer firefighters who were deployed to fight the Alberta wildfires over several years to determine whether their respiratory or mental health were damaged by their exposure to the fires, ultimately assessing the importance of respiratory protection and mental health support in keeping firefighters healthy.

Dr. Chris Le, University of Alberta


During the fires, the combustion of houses and other materials resulted in the accumulation of toxic ash and fine particulates which spread through the air and ended up in surrounding communities. Dr. Le will lead a team to measure and compare the level of chemical contaminants, before and after the wildfires, in traditional foods such as local game meat and locally harvested plants in the Mikisew Cree First Nation (Fort Chipewyan), Fort McKay First Nation and Métis communities. 

Dr. Stephanie Montesanti, University of Alberta


Dr. Montesanti and her team will partner with the Nistawoyou Association Friendship Centre (Fort McMurray) to examine how the health and well-being of the Indigenous residents of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo were impacted by the wildfires.

Dr. David Olson, University of Alberta


Dr. Olson will lead a team that will study a group of pregnant women and new mothers who were forced to evacuate because of the wildfires. These women will be asked to engage in short bursts of expressive writing about their feelings about the fires to determine if this form of therapy reduces stress and improves their pregnancy outcomes and newborn development. If successful, this intervention could be applied to other victims of natural disasters easily and on a population-wide level.

Dr. Peter Silverstone, University of Alberta


Dr. Silverstone and his team will study the effects of the wildfires and evacuation on the psychological and emotional health of children and adolescents 5-18 years of age, with a view to better understanding the factors that contribute to positive mental health and resiliency.

SOURCE Canadian Institutes of Health Research

For further information: Andrew MacKendrick, Office of the Honourable Jane Philpott, Minister of Health, 613-957-0200; David Coulombe, Media Relations, Canadian Institutes of Health Research. 613-941-4563; Dwayne Brunner, Manager, Media Relations, Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions, 780-429-9344; Canadian Red Cross, National media: 1‐877‐599‐9602, Alberta media: 1‐403‐541‐4431, Quebec media: 1‐888‐418‐9111


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