By Barry Ellsworth
TRENTON, Ont. (AA) – Hundreds of firefighters credited with saving the northern Alberta oil patch city of Fort McMurray from wildfire face an uncertain future because of the inhalation of hazardous smoke, the Canadian Press [CP] reported Monday.
About 180 of the crew that fought wildfire that was nicknamed “The Beast” have developed persistent coughs and many more could be affected by serious illnesses in the long term because they were not able to wear breathing apparatuses that supplied fresh air.
The air tanks are good for fighting a single home fire, but only last about an hour and crews had no time to get fresh tanks as they battled the blaze that consumed about 2,400 homes – about a tenth of the city, according to CP.
“We didn’t have time to get back to the [fire] hall to charge [the tanks],” said Fort McMurray fire Chief Darby Allen.
Fort McMurray firefighters were first on the scene and “would have been out there for long periods of time sucking in the smoke,” Allen said. At its peak about 2,200 firefighters were battling the blaze.
It was the worst natural disaster in Canadian history as the wildfire on May 3 forced the evacuation of the city of 80,000 residents, shut down production in the Athabasca Oil Sands and eventually consumed about 1.5 million acres before it was tamed and deemed under control July 5.
The Fort McMurray crew worked around the clock and inhaled most of the hazardous smoke unleashed by toxins in articles such as burning vinyl siding, treated lumber and furniture.
“Realistically, a lot of our guys, their lives are going to be shortened because of this incident,” Nick Waddington, president of the Fort McMurray branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters told CP. “When you compound that with everything that we’re going to have in our careers, we’re definitely going to be in a high risk.”
Waddington said firefighters would likely require treatment for serious illnesses over the next 10 to 20 years.