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Indigenous peoples had some of the highest rates of ER visits to Yellowknife forest fires in 2014: Study

Melaine Simba will never forget the months she spent at her home in the Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation south of Yellowknife. Their windows are tightly closed to keep devastating smoke from entering. It was summer 2014, and she was following public health orders to stay indoors during the Northwest Territories’ worst forest fire season ever recorded. “There were fires all around us,” Simba told The Narwhal. “I couldn’t go outside and I couldn’t take my son outside.” “It was just so hard to breathe that smoke with all the falling ash.” According to a new study published in the journal BMJ Open, the forest fires caused extremely poor air quality during more than two months of relentless smoke exposure. This led to a sharp rise in respiratory diseases, with vulnerable populations such as children and indigenous people being disproportionately affected. The study also found that public health advice asking people to stay indoors during the forest fires was “inadequately protective”, possibly because people were fed up with long periods of isolation. With climate change contributing to longer and more intense forest fire seasons, the study’s authors believe there is an urgent need to be far better prepared in the future. “A really big finding from this study is that climate change is bad and will get worse,” said Courtney Howard, lead author of the study and emergency doctor in Yellowknife, told The Narwhal, adding that smoke exposure during the wildfires was considered one the worst ever studied in the world. “We will need new, proactive approaches as we move into a warmer, smokier state on this planet.” Warmer temperatures caused by climate change can lead to drier conditions and increase the risk of forest fires. In 2014, moderate to severe drought conditions and lightning strikes triggered 385 fires affecting 3.4 million hectares of forest in the Northwest Territories. According to the federal government, temperatures in the north are warming up more than twice as fast as worldwide. In Yellowknife, the average annual temperature in the city rose 2.5 ° C between 1943 and 2011. The average fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in the air was five times higher than normal during the 2014 forest fires compared to the previous two years and 2015. PM 2.5 – inhalable particles less than 2.5 microns in diameter – is linked to a number of respiratory diseases. The study found that this increase in particles was linked to increases in hospital visits for asthma, pneumonia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Asthma-related emergency rooms visited, with the highest rates being seen in women, people over 40, and Dene. Pneumonia visits increased 57 percent, with men, children and Inuit particularly affected. And visits for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease increased 11 percent, with men, the Inuit and Dene populations, and people over 60 at greatest risk. While the results suggest tribal peoples were more severely affected, Howard said it was difficult to say for sure as they may have been more likely to go to the emergency room due to lack of access to medical clinics. The demand for drugs that help relieve symptoms of asthma also increased. The release of salbutamol, the active ingredient contained in buffers, increased by 48 percent. “Indeed, one of the pharmacies ran out over the summer,” said Howard. Supply chain problems “showed a lack of resilience,” she added. The study also highlights systemic problems that contribute to poor health outcomes in vulnerable populations, including indigenous peoples. “Climate-related health impacts affect all population groups, but are likely to have a disproportionate impact on communities living on the front lines of rapid climate change, as well as communities suffering from systemic racism, socio-economic and health disparities, and / or the enduring effects of colonization suffer, “states the study states. Lengthy periods of isolation, sedentary lifestyle, anxiety and stress during the forest fires also had a negative impact on people’s mental health and lifestyles, according to a 2018 report that Howard was also involved in. “For some respondents, livelihoods and activities on land were disrupted, which had negative consequences for mental, emotional and physical well-being,” the report said. Throughout the summer, Indians fish, hunt and visit ancient villages and relatives’ burial sites throughout the area, Jason Snaggs, executive director of Yellowknives Dene First Nation, told The Narwhal. The forest fires prevented people from participating in these cultural activities, he added. “This leads to depression, and you have kind of a compositional effect on colonialism, the effects of residential schools, and intergenerational trauma,” Snaggs said. “Some people were visibly traumatized by this event.” Local protection can lead to increased rates of domestic violence, including violence against indigenous women, added Snaggs. Calls to a local family crisis center in Fort McMurray, Alta., During the 2016 wildfires increased by more than 300 percent, according to Michele Taylor, executive director of Waypoints, an emergency shelter for women and children. Howard said the 2014 forest fires were a landmark event in helping people understand climate change in the region. “At the time, environmental grief and environmental anxiety didn’t really show up in the evidence base,” she said. “If we look back on our analysis, we can easily apply these terms to what we have found and say that for many people it was a trigger for environmental grief and fear.” Howard said communities – especially indigenous communities – need to be better equipped to withstand forest fires. Some homes in indigenous communities are overcrowded and are not being built to the same standards as elsewhere on the territory. Howard stressed the need to address this issue in the first place. The BMJ study recommends that governments install ventilation systems in old and new homes before the forest fire season. This would ensure residents have access to clean air without having to leave their homes. “Our infrastructure decisions must be based on the temperature and rainfall patterns we expect to see in the next century as opposed to what we have had in the last century,” said Howard. The study also recommends that general practitioners identify individuals who may be struggling with respiratory problems and ensure that air filters and buffers are readily available in advance of the forest fire season. “This allows people to manage their symptoms at home and never get to the point where they are stuck in the emergency room,” said Howard. “The earlier people in particular need of protection have access [to air filters and puffers]the better. “In 2014, the City of Yellowknife waived usage fees for a multipurpose recreational facility so residents could go there to breathe clean, filtered air and exercise,” said Howard. But not everyone in Yellowknife has equal access. N ‘ Dilo, which is part of Yellowknives Dene First Nation and located in Yellowknife, has only one room for people to congregate over a wildfire – a 45-year-old gym that doesn’t have a filtration system to help keep the air out The study suggests that public health doctors are using satellite smoke prediction to determine the need for clean air-raid shelters ahead of the forest fire season and, if so, provide more. The 2018 report, which shared the experiences of 30 community members from Yellowknife, Dettah , N’Dilo and Kakisa who survived the forest fires were revealed A consensus among the participants about the need for improved communication and coordination at community and regional level Forest fires are increasing. Howard said residents and healthcare providers need to proactively prepare for the forest fire season each year. “We need to see the forest fire season as well as the cold and flu seasons.” Julien Gignac, reporter for the Local Journalism Initiative, The Narwhal

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