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Health Matters

AHS is Here to Help

July 1st, 2016

Submitted by Alberta Health Services

At some point in our lives, we all face tough times. The wildfire in Fort McMurray, and the ongoing recovery, is one of those times, whether we are impacted directly, or indirectly.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) has resources and services available to help you or someone you know who may be affected. We’re here to help. Remember, if you are struggling, you are not alone. There are supports in place to help you cope.

Help can come in many forms and for some of us we may need more support than others. Rebecca Thompson is a Mental Health Recovery Worker on AHS’ Assertive Outreach Services team. She says children and teens don’t react to disasters and emergencies the same way that adults do.

“Children aren’t necessarily as adaptable as adults,” she explains. “They haven’t had to move around as much in their lives or adapt to big changes. On one hand children are really resilient but on the other hand, they are sponges, they’re really impacted by what happens around them.”

Kids under five might be more whiny or clingy after a big event such as the wildfire that ripped through Fort McMurray on May 3.  Children ages six to 12 can get quieter, more withdrawn, and teens may be more likely to give in to peer pressure. There are a variety of stress reactions you may notice in your child or youth.

It can help to try to get back to a normal routine as much as possible. Encourage, but don’t force kids to talk about the event. Let them know it’s okay to talk about it and listen without judgment when they do share their feelings. It’s important to reassure kids that they’re safe and that you’ll help them if they are scared.

Limit exposure to news reports or adult conversations about the disaster. Make time for children to play with kids their age and remember to enjoy some family fun together. Taking part in community rehabilitation is a great way to contribute and heal.

The effects of the trauma and the changes in the community will affect people at different times and at varying degrees over the next few months and years, says Thompson. The Assertive Outreach Services team is working with adults and children in the community to help, now and into the future.

“We are trying to be proactive in connecting with the community to make sure everyone has supports in place,” she explains. “We want to prevent people down the road from experiencing the fallout of going through a traumatic event as. We’re working on how to best be there for children and ensure they have an avenue to be able to talk about their experience and work through any residual emotions or challenges they may be having.”

It’s important to reach out if you need help, says Dr. Mayank Singal, AHS Medical Officer of Health. “It will be a challenging time from a psychological perspective for many people,” he says. “It’s important to recognize that there are AHS resources available to support people during this difficult time.”

There is a wealth of information available on the AHS website for residents in Fort McMurray who are putting their lives and homes back together. Visit for more about health services available in the community, including mental health supports.

Experiencing a disaster such as the Fort McMurray fires can be incredibly stressful and overwhelming. If you need to talk, call the Mental Health Help Line at 1-877-303-2642 or Health Link at 811.

A variety of resources on cleaning up after the fire are also available online or through Health Link, as getting a home back to normal after a disaster of this magnitude is no small task.

“We’ve developed some great resources for the public dealing with a variety of issues,” says Shane Hussey, AHS North Zone Director of Environmental Public Health. “And we’re always able to follow up with people to answer their questions if those materials don’t cover it.”

The following is a list of things to keep in mind from an environmental public health perspective throughout the process.

Returning to Your Home:

Beware of a variety of hazards including sharp objects, ash/soot, hazardous materials or chemicals, confined or poorly ventilated spaces and propane tanks. Be sure to wear the proper personal protective equipment (PPE), like long sleeves and pants, boots, gloves, or masks while cleaning.

Use a sprayer or pressure washer on the exterior of your home, roof, driveway, walkway, vehicles, patios, decks and outdoor furniture and play sets. Rinse off air intakes and air conditioning units with water as well.

Fire retardants can cause eye irritation, dry skin and stinging to cuts or scrapes. Consult your family physician if you experience any of these reactions. If fire retardant is present on or around your home, be sure to rinse off any surfaces or vegetation. Never use bleach, as this can cause a chemical reaction with harmful and explosive gases.  

Do not wash the fire debris into the street. Instead, scrape up ash and soot as much as possible and place in garbage bags or other containers and take it to the landfill.

If you have a private septic system, check the area for damage and leaks and contact a professional to address any issues.

Hot tubs should be drained, and scrubbed clean before being re-filled. For residential swimming pools, it’s recommended that you work with a pool service company to ensure your pool is safe to use.

If play sets have been damaged by fire, it’s a good idea to block access until it has been replaced. Use a mild detergent and clean water to wash play sets and other outside toys. Sand boxes and sand, gravel or other loose material under play sets should be replaced if ash is present.

Thoroughly shampoo pets that have been exposed to smoke, soot, ash or fire retardants, and make sure pets don’t drink water from puddles containing fire residue.

Eating fruits or vegetables grown above or below ground in areas impacted by fire, is not recommended.   

Discard any items impacted by smoke, heat, ash or chemicals. This includes food (dry or jarred goods as well as items in fridges or freezers), medicines, cleaners, toiletries and cosmetics. When in doubt, throw it out. Make sure you take an inventory of these items first, for insurance purposes.

If there are no air quality advisories in place, open your windows and get the air moving inside your home by using a fan. Replace your furnace filter. Humidifiers can reduce the amount of ash that becomes airborne. Ducts and air conditioning systems should be professionally cleaned.

Wash all interior surfaces with mild detergent or cleaning solution and rinse, including windows, closets, and cupboards. Wet wiping is safer and more effective than dusting or dry mopping. Only use a vacuum with a HEPA filter which can catch ash particles, and change the filter often.

Steam clean carpets, curtains and furniture making sure to change the water frequently. Wash all affected clothing, bedding and towels. Several rinse cycles may be needed.

It’s recommended that electronics be taken outside to blow out components with an air hose before use, as ash can cause static charges.

If your home has sustained water damage, you’ll need to get rid of any excess water to prevent potential mold growth.

For more information about returning home, visit and click on the Health Resources tab. This is where you can also find more about smoke and air quality, boil water information, and the various health resources available to Fort McMurray residents in the wake of this unprecedented natural disaster.   


Tags: advice, health

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