When wildfires engulfed Fort McMurray, Alberta, in 2016, it turned lives upside down, taking a toll on the more than 88,000 people who were forced to leave.
The largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta’s history kept residents away from home for weeks, and when they returned, they found that 2,400 houses had been destroyed.
Resident Brian Bowdridge was lucky. His home suffered only smoke damage, and he counted his blessings. But he sank into a depression and started abusing drugs and alcohol. Four years later, he’s still dealing with these problems.
“I’m still on medication. I still think about it quite often. I don’t know, that was pretty traumatizing if I’ll ever get over it. Probably not."
“I’m still on medication. I still think about it quite often. I don’t know, that was pretty traumatizing if I’ll ever get over it. Probably not,” he said.
A new report from Deloitte, "Uncovering the hidden iceberg," concludes that the Fort McMurray fire holds important lessons for governments looking to prepare for the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mathieu Laberge, one of the authors of the Deloitte report, says that includes a “tsunami” of mental health problems that could persist for years.
“Our previous research on the impact of natural disasters shows that once the public health and economic crises have subsided, the human crisis will endure for months, if not years."
“Our previous research on the impact of natural disasters shows that once the public health and economic crises have subsided, the human crisis will endure for months, if not years,” the study says.
Deloitte based its analysis on mental health data collected after the Fort McMurray fire, and after the 2008 economic recession. It found that visits to mental health professionals and prescriptions for antidepressants shot up in the months after the Fort McMurray wildfires.
“They were calling it a monster on the news, and they weren’t kidding. It was just chomping away coming toward us,” Bowdridge told The World. “You could hear the houses popping, the gas lines popping, you could hear the vehicles popping from the fires and it was just, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know what we’re gonna do,’” recalled Bowdridge, who made a harrowing escape with his girlfriend when blocked roads eventually opened.
“I did not think I was going to live. I thought we were goners, I really did. And everybody I talked to thought the same thing,” he said.
The latest data available shows those antidepressant prescription numbers were still up two years later. The Deloitte team used that data to predict how the pandemic would affect mental health.
Laberge said he was humbled by what he found.
“We knew there would be an impact. I think the magnitude, the sheer magnitude of it was pretty surprising,” he said. “We’re probably all surrounded by people who need our help right now.”
Deloitte’s model predicts a mental health crisis that will last for years after the pandemic ends. Laberge says the Fort McMurray wildfires and the pandemic have enough in common to convince him that the fires are a reliable model.
Fort McMurray residents were kept from their homes for months, a huge disruption that Laberge equates to the home isolation that many people have experienced during lockdowns. Fort McMurray was also in a recession when the fires hit. The recession deepened as industries in the area were forced to shut down.
“We know recessions have a mental health burden. We know that disruptive events and natural disasters have a mental health burden. When they are combined, it kind of compounds the effect and makes it even more difficult to bear for people,” Laberge said.
Deloitte predicts that visits to mental health professionals will nearly triple. And it says women will be especially hard hit, since three times as many women have lost their jobs so far.
Fort McMurray resident Nicole Greville says she can see the parallels between the wildfires and the pandemic.
“The idea of the unknown is the scariest thing for people. I mean look at the way people hoarded toilet paper,” she said.
She says she became anxious and unhappy after the fire, which she attributes to the uncertainty she felt during the evacuation.
“I pretty much lost a lot of control. I didn’t know where I would sleep the following day and every day I was constantly on alert, and I think that if you’re on a heightened sense of alert for like four weeks, that has a lasting impact."
“I pretty much lost a lot of control. I didn’t know where I would sleep the following day and every day I was constantly on alert, and I think that if you’re on a heightened sense of alert for like four weeks, that has a lasting impact,” she said.
Greville is now seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication, but she expects the impact of the fire will always be with her.
Deloitte recommends that governments start preparing for the fallout from the pandemic now, by enhancing mental health services and making it easier for people to access mental health support. It says employers should also look at initiatives like extra benefits and flexible work hours.