“Wildfires are no stranger to Wilfred Tomma. As an experienced firefighter in his 80s, Uncle Wilfred has seen his fair share of fires, with the most memorable being the Dean inferno. After working long hours on the firelines, he now suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and partially blames the harmful particulates he inhaled during his firefighting days for his health issues. However, he acknowledges that the exact cause is difficult to pinpoint. And with the recent wildfire that destroyed his home and displaced him from his First Nation community, Tomma’s struggle is only getting worse.
The health risks of wildfires, particularly for First Nations, have sparked calls for increased funding and research into environmental health issues. The fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, from wildfires can have devastating effects on the health and well-being of individuals, especially newborns, pregnant mothers, and older people, who are more susceptible to respiratory conditions. With more severe wildfires come more severe blankets of wildfire smoke, creating a severe health crisis for First Nations communities across the country.
Living on the front lines of Canada’s wildfire crisis has left over 95 First Nations communities evacuated this year alone. The heavy smoke conditions can be particularly challenging for individuals living in housing that is not adequately sealed against particulate matter. And as climate change continues to worsen, the lack of air conditioning in many First Nations communities leaves residents with limited options for relief from heat and smoke.
In addition to the physical health risks, wildfires also impose significant mental stress on families, with community members losing heirlooms, homes, and other sentimental possessions. The destruction of wildlife and ancestral territory has further compounded the mental burdens on First Nations communities.
Despite the growing concerns over the health and environmental impacts of wildfires, there remains a blind spot in Ottawa regarding environmental health research. While the Canadian Institutes of Health Research has made some investments in studying the effects of the environment on health, it falls short compared to other western countries. The lack of dedicated funding and research for environmental health institutes has left many First Nations communities vulnerable to the escalating impacts of wildfires.
As the frequency and severity of wildfires continue to rise, the need for increased research and funding into environmental health becomes even more critical to protect vulnerable communities. The fate of First Nations living on the front lines of Canada’s wildfire crisis hangs in the balance, and it is time for Ottawa to take action and prioritize the health and well-being of these communities.”