Wilfred Tomma is no stranger to fire. Now in his 80s, Uncle Wilfred, as he's known to many on his First Nation in B.C., has war stories of the years he fought fires, especially the big Dean inferno. Some days, he was so tired working the firelines that he would forget to eat and would fall asleep where he stood, waking up in a pool of water.
“I remember those times. I remember a lot,” he said with a long pause. “Sad but true. The young folks today as they live with the fire. I don’t think they would ever come close to the real nature of a fire. They would never want to be caught next to a big fire like that.”
Now, Tomma, from Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw around 70 kilometres east of Kamloops, suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). He partly blames “the stuff” he inhaled working the firelines so many years ago, often when the protective gear was sparse compared to now, but acknowledges it’s difficult to pin down an exact cause.
Tomma was also a smoker. It’s a pastime he recalls fondly: he used to sit on his veranda, share a conversation with his common-law partner and watch the community baseball games across the street.
The veranda is now only a memory. Tomma’s home was one of 34 destroyed this year when a wildfire tore through Swklāx in August, evacuating the community. He remains displaced in a vacation cabin in a town 15 minutes away from Skwlāx waiting for the rebuild and recovery of his community. The cold late autumn air passes through his cabin's windows and the hum of two space heaters runs constantly.
The health risks of wildfires and their disproportionate impacts on First Nations have left health experts calling on Ottawa to increase funding and centralize environmental health research. Currently, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is falling short of the funding found in the United States and the European Union.
The health risks of wildfires for First Nations
The so-called stuff Tomma inhaled during his time working as a wildland firefighter is called fine particulate matter, which has a diameter of 2.5 microns or smaller, Dr. Kamran Golmohammadi, medical officer for the First Nations Health Authority in British Columbia, explained.
Worsening wildfire seasons also create a multi-prong health crisis for First Nations: smoke and heat threats. #Wildfires #ClimateCrisis
These particles can remain floating for several weeks and sometimes months, and can even travel hundreds of kilometres, he said. The impact of particulate matter, or PM2.5 for short, can significantly impact the health and well-being of almost everyone by getting into the lungs and affecting our cardiovascular system, he said.
Newborns, pregnant mothers and older people, who often have higher instances of conditions or respiratory conditions such as COPD and asthma, face the highest risk, Golmohammadi added.
And with more severe wildfires come more severe blankets of wildfire smoke that can choke communities. Take New York, for example, which became the world’s most polluted city due to the wildfires in Québec.
It’s a persistent problem for First Nations on the front lines of Canada’s wildfire crisis. Canada’s National Observer found more than 95 First Nations communities were evacuated this year alone, almost double those during the second-worst wildfire season in 2021, according to data from Indigenous Services Canada.
In Québec, heavy smoke caused most of the Cree Nation evacuations, Leeroy Blacksmith, fire marshal for the Cree Nation Government, told Canada’s National Observer.
In heavy smoke conditions, health officials advise people to remove the risks of inhaling PM2.5 by staying inside, sealing their homes as much as possible, and using air purifiers to filter out harmful particulates.
But that’s not always possible in First Nations housing. Homes may not be adequately sealed against the particulate matter, which can creep in even when the windows are closed, Nicole Redvers, an Indigenous health researcher from Deninu K'ue First Nation Band, said.
Worsening wildfire seasons also create a multi-prong dual health crisis for First Nations: smoke and heat threats. The conditions that create a fast-growing fire — dry, hot and windy — create stifling conditions for residents in homes not built to withstand either.
“We don't realize how much we are reliant on circulation and refreshing the indoor air by opening doors and windows, using fans when we are cooking,” Golmohammadi said. “When [heat and smoke] combine, it becomes a serious health challenge.”
The reality of climate change also leaves First Nations without air conditioning at a disadvantage, Redvers said. Even Dene communities in the Northwest Territories, for example, face a rapidly changing climate that is warming at four times the global average, according to recent research. The outdated infrastructure is no match for a changing climate and community members are forced to choose between a hot or a smoke-filled house, Redvers said.
“You have the choice between basically sweating and potentially having a heat-related illness within your home,” she said. “[Or] the smoke impacts of cracking your windows open or going outside where the [smoke] index may be 10 or 11.”
Mental health burden on First Nations
Wildfires also place myriad mental stresses on families, Redvers said. Besides being displaced from their homes and missing school, other losses can be insurmountable.
Canada’s National Observer previously spoke with wildfire evacuees who lost family heirlooms, photographs of late family members, and homes full of memories.
Take Uncle Wilfred, a pipe carrier, who recently lost his pipe, drum and medicines. Medicine bags, hunting cabins, fishing camps and traplines that play a central role in healing for many First Nations are also often lost to wildfires.
“I lost everything that I used to carry around with me. That's the one time that I didn't take my medicine bag with me,” he said. “It could never be the same again.”
The destruction on Skwlāx ancestral territory also weighed heavy on community members, particularly the impacts on wildlife. Canada’s National Observer heard from several Skwlāx community members that rifles had to be used to end the suffering of animals that were severely burned.
In October, a local logging company that works with Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw took community members up for a helicopter ride to get a hawk's-eye view of the devastation. The atmosphere was sensitive and sombre, with heartbreak for the land and the community's losses.
Environmental health research remains a blind spot for Ottawa
Redvers echoes those calls so science can better understand how wildfires affect health, particularly for First Nations in vulnerable communities.
Currently, the CIHR has 13 institutes, including cancer, aging and Indigenous Peoples’ health, among others. However, it hasn’t kept up with other western countries that fund institutes focused on environmental health. For example, the United States National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has been running since the 1960s.
CIHR has invested $37.5 million over five years as part of its Environments and Health Signature Initiative, which researches how the environment affects health and what new methods can measure the environmental impacts on the population in Canada. For example, the funding will support studies on natural resource management, climate change, air pollution, biodiversity and conservation, and water quality and quantity.
That number is dwarfed — even on a per capita basis — by a funding pot of roughly $1.3 billion for the United States, and roughly $3.6 billion in the European Union, according to a recently published paper calling for an environmental health institute.
But a more significant issue is emerging. Severe wildfire smoke becoming a common occurrence every summer needs to be investigated, Redvers said.
Although there is already evidence of the relationship between smoking and cardiovascular disease, asthma and COPD, Redvers said, “we just don't have a good handle on the long-term impacts of wildfire smoke.”
Months-long exposure to wildfire smoke can expose communities to levels of particulate matter several times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended amount, she said. So there is cause for alarm.
Even though First Nations are disproportionately affected by wildfires, environmental health research is not one of the four priority areas of the Indigenous Health Institute.
Christian Baron, vice-president of research and programs at CIHR, told Canada’s National Observer that there is a place for an environmental health institute in the future, but there are always budgetary questions and challenges.
Baron compares the CIHR's budget, roughly $1.3 billion, to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), whose budget is $47 billion. In 2022 alone, the NIH spent $937.1 million on environmental health research.
He argues that current CIHR research covers the environmental health field “quite well” through different institutes like the Indigenous Peoples Health Institute, the Institute for Public and Population Health and the Institute for Circulatory and Respiratory Health.
For example, a new research initiative on lung health will be a multi-institute initiative at $22 million over three years. Research can centre on topics like vaping or climate-related research on wildfire smoke or pollution, so there is overlap, he said.
However, when asked if a broad topic like lung health will increase competition for environmental research, Baron noted that research is a “very competitive process."
It’s unclear if a decentralized research approach across CIHR institutions will be enough for Canadian researchers given the urgency, variability and unpredictability of Canada’s regional climates, weather patterns, as well as unforeseen health risks associated with the transition of Canada’s industrial economy.
“It’s a real uncertain time, and I think we need a lot more attention and resources put into the effects and continued effects of climate change on the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities,” Redvers said.
Canada's National Observer gratefully acknowledges the North Family Foundation's support in producing this piece.
Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative