Wildfires in Alberta are always a real possibility in spring, once the temperatures rise and the snow melts, yet no one expected what’s happening throughout our province so early in the season — 72 active wildfires as of May 23 and a total of 520 wildfires since the beginning of the year.
The wildfires and the work of our heroic first responders get a lot of media attention both in Canada and elsewhere, and rightly so. Right now we have 2,700 people working on wildfires and in addition to our own firefighters there are firefighters from the U.S., New Brunswick and the Canadian Armed Forces on the ground helping. Thank you to all firefighters and other emergency personnel for their service.
Unfortunately, Canada has a lot of experience battling wildfires. We’ve been able to study and learn not only how to best tackle these major natural disasters, but also how to address the mental health toll they take on people and communities.
About 17 communities, 10,700 people, are currently under evacuation orders due to wildfires across central and northern Alberta. Nearly 10,000 other people evacuated earlier have returned to their homes although they’re on alert since conditions could change at any moment.
And even those of us who at this point in time are not affected by the wildfires may still experience anxiety and stress, particularly anyone impacted by past wildfires. Many people in our region had their homes and businesses destroyed during the May 2011 Slave Lake fire that burned 30 percent of the town and caused more than $700 million in damage. The wildfire in Fort McMurray in 2016 forced the evacuation of 90,000 people and became Canada’s costliest disaster at $9.9 billion.
Some of the learnings we gained about mental health came out of the Fort McMurray wildfires. Like many other life situations, people who received support from friends and family were nine times less likely to suffer mental health issues — depression, anxiety or PTSD. While the research is less definite on other support systems — the Red Cross, Government of Alberta, insurance — you would assume that these services help make life easier during a time of crisis.
Nonetheless, friends and family — the ability to engage with people and share our stories and worries and find someone who will listen and not judge — help the most.
From these learnings, Alberta Health Services now has available 24/7 wildfire information, supports and services that any of us can access. Here are some of them:
Mental health and addiction staff are located where people are evacuated throughout the province.
For immediate support call the mental health helpline at 1-877-303-2642. Trained staff are there 24/7 and provide a confidential service for support, information, and referrals to anyone experiencing mental health concerns.
A toll-free Indigenous support line is also available in the North and South Zones, by calling 1-844-944-4744. The support line is staffed by Indigenous Health Link staff and available weekdays from noon to 8 p.m. Staff are available to help answer questions, access culturally appropriate care and support and assist in navigating the healthcare system.
In our region, we’re in the North Zone, the largest geographic zone in Alberta.
Albertans can also sign up for Text4Hope to receive free supportive text messages every day. To join, text HopeAB to 393939. Sometimes a daily message that gives hope and support can make all the difference and reinforce that none of us are alone.
Anyone searching for important information to help themselves or friends and family members stay safe, plan ahead and remain healthy during the wildfires may text the word “wildfire” to 88111 and receive a response on different wildfire-related inquiries including air quality, how to report a wildfire, and resources for planning ahead.
Remember, trained health professionals and many different resources are available to help each of us get through this time — no one has to do it on their own.
Stay safe and let’s look out for each other.