In the southern interior of British Columbia, a fire blazed ferociously, filling the summer air with dense smoke and ash. Firefighting crews gathered frantically at the foot of a steep slope, attempting to put out the blaze’s raging flames and force the fire up the unsteady terrain.
Gabriel Corbeil, a firefighter from Hinton, Alta., was put in charge of slowing the fire’s wrath. Carrying a can filled with diesel gas for igniting any unburnt surroundings, he quickly ran down the 45-degree slope, being very careful with his footing.
As he worked on the unstable ridge, Corbeil put his weight on a slippery, thin stick sitting at the bottom of a small drop. Losing his footing, he fell, folding his knee under his body.
“It didn’t hurt so bad in the moment because I was charged with adrenaline,” he said.
After the fall, he knew he needed to urgently get back up to his crew, understanding that if they lost control of the fire, Corbeil would find himself stranded at the bottom of the hill.
“It wasn’t until I sat down and took a moment that I realized my knee didn’t feel right,” he said.
Long hours, frequent smoke inhalation and injuries, like those experienced by Corbeil, can have life-altering consequences that can damage firefighters’ overall quality of life.
As temperatures increase in Western Canada as a result of climate change, firefighters are at greater risk of health complications and firefighting operations need to consider measures to better prepare their crews for longer fire seasons.
Corbeil, 24, like many firefighters, has sustained a number of injuries, undergone constant exposure to smoke and experienced overwhelming exhaustion while on the frontlines.
Sandra Dorman, director of the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., said the most common injuries in firefighting are caused by slips, trips and falls that occur because of unstable terrain and heavy equipment.
She explains that the more physically demanding a fire is, the more likely firefighters are to sustain injuries.
“Uneven ground requires strength, balance and flexibility,” she said. “Once you become fatigued, it’s harder to navigate that terrain successfully.”
She said continual exposure to smoke inhalation is also a concern, adding that even when air quality advisories are in effect, crews spend a great deal of time outdoors. Since firefighters work on the frontlines regularly, they are at higher risk of developing long-term health repercussions related to smoke inhalation, she added.
Corbeil says firefighters will feel it in places that are really dusty or when there’s a lot of ash in the air.
“In those kinds of conditions, you feel it more in your chest. Sometimes half the crew will even be hacking after fighting a big fire,” he said.
Although specialized masks are one of the best forms of protection against smoke, Dorman said she has found firefighters are not always required to wear them. They make it difficult for workers to breathe and amplify exhaustion, she said.
With long forest fire seasons, many firefighters also have trouble keeping up with the job’s demanding mental strain.
“When people think of firefighting, they often think of physical fatigue, but right now, where crews are really falling apart, is with everything mental,” Dorman said.
Corbeil said coping with mental exhaustion is one of the most difficult aspects of the job.
“For me, it’s, and I think most firefighters, it’s just about trying to hang on,” he said.
According to fire science researcher Mike Flannigan, as the climate crisis increases temperatures across the board, the number of forest fires is likely to surge, and wildfire seasons are expected to become longer.
He said raised temperatures cause fuels, such as plants, to become dryer and more combustible, leading to higher intensity fires that are nearly impossible to extinguish.
Flannigan said that more extreme fires and weather patterns are gradually becoming a more significant concern in fire management.
“We’re seeing more and more fire-generated thunderstorms, sometimes even fire tornadoes and things like it, which is really dangerous because of how erratic and unpredictable they are,” he said.
As the climate crisis worsens, Flannigan said communities will be at risk of being scorched, and higher levels of smoke in the atmosphere could put many at risk of obtaining acute health complications.
Flannigan, who works with the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta, recommended organizations should focus on early detection, initial attack protocols and education programs such as FireSmart, to further protect communities and frontline workers.
“We have to learn to live with fires,” he said. “There will be more fires. Air quality will be impacted because of smoke and, at times, communities will be affected, so we have to be better prepared.”
Corbeil said he hopes firefighting operations will collaborate on preventative measures that will better equip crews for longer forest fire seasons and minimize their risks of suffering from greater health implications or worsening pre-existing conditions.
“It’s really about learning and adapting at the end of the day, knowing that at times, it may get tough,” he said.