June 16, 2016
Story by Erika Sherk and Kirsten Goruk; Photo by Christi Retson-Spalding
FORT MCMURRAY - In the weeks that have followed since the wildfire situation in Fort McMurray resulted in a mandatory evacuation, much focus has been – understandably – on the work being done to bring the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre back to life.
However there are also hundreds of Alberta Health Services (AHS) staff hard at work behind the scenes, doing a myriad tasks to help the city get back on its feet.
“A lot of work has been happening around the clock to support people with the re-entry phase,” says Dr. Mayank Singal, an AHS Medical Officer of Health in the North Zone.
One of the first priorities for Environmental Public Health (EPH) is water. “The distribution system was heavily impacted by fire activity and so we had to make sure that the water was safe to drink,” says Dr. Singal.
Many neighbourhoods in the community remain under a boil water advisory. “We’re working with the municipality and the water treatment operator to bring the water supply back to the community and we’ll be testing it to make sure it’s safe for consumption,” he says.
After safe water comes safe food. Restaurants and stores have to go through an EPH inspection to make sure they are able to open up to customers again safely.
“A lot of food was left behind and, there is potential for smoke damage,” says Dr. Singal, “so we have asked all food establishments to discard and restock all food that wasn’t sealed in airtight containers.”
And as Janine Legare, a Public Health Inspector based in St. Paul who was deployed to Fort McMurray explains, the initial efforts focused on priority businesses such as grocery stores and gas stations, but now the work is expanding to include other personal businesses and public buildings or spaces.
“We’re more than just food. We’re really anywhere there’s an interface between the environment and people’s health. So that does include a lot of different facilities and a lot of different program areas,” she says.
While inspectors on the ground are hard at work, other EPH staff work behind the scenes.
To prepare for the re-entry of Fort McMurray residents, Shane Hussey, Director for Environmental Public Health in the North Zone and his team put together a comprehensive document, outlining all kinds of information that would be necessary for people wondering how to safely return to their homes and businesses. Those resources are available at www.ahs.ca/wphwildfire.
“We’ve developed some great resources for the public dealing with a variety of issues,” says Hussey. “And we’re always able to follow up with people to answer their questions if those materials don’t cover it.”
EPH staff have been “amazing and selfless,” Hussey says. To illustrate, he mentions one public health inspector from Fort McMurray who has a beard for reasons of faith. The inspector learned that he would have to shave his beard in order to wear proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) if he wanted to deploy back to his community to help.
“Without question, he went and did it right away so he could be in a position to be part of the response effort and support his community,” says Hussey.
Legare’s experience has mirrored that of many of the people involved in the restoration efforts. The amount of teamwork that’s ongoing is evident.
“It’s pretty incredible, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Everyone’s just really working together for one common goal: first of all to make sure everybody’s safe and then to get residents back in here,” she says.
“You hear the stories that are coming out, the highlights of the heroes who have been working since Day One. It’s incredible. I’m proud to be part of this organization right now.”