Canadian Journal of Public Health

, Volume 109, Issue 3, pp 327–337 | Cite as

Lived experience of a record wildfire season in the Northwest Territories, Canada

  • Warren Dodd
  • Patrick Scott
  • Courtney Howard
  • Craig Scott
  • Caren Rose
  • Ashlee Cunsolo
  • James Orbinski
Qualitative Research



During the period of June–September 2014, the Northwest Territories (NWT) experienced its worst wildfire season on record, with prolonged smoke events and poor air quality. In the context of climate change, this study sought to qualitatively explore the lived experience of the 2014 wildfire season among four communities in the NWT.


Our team conducted 30 semi-structured interviews in four communities (Yellowknife, N’Dilo, Detah, and Kakisa). Interviewees were purposively sampled to include a broad cross-section of backgrounds and experiences. Interviews were video recorded, and the audio portion of each interview was transcribed to facilitate analysis and theme generation.


Interviewees reported how their experiences of evacuation and isolation as well as feelings of fear, stress, and uncertainty contributed to acute and long-term negative impacts for their mental and emotional well-being. Prolonged smoke events were linked to extended time indoors and respiratory problems. Livelihood and land-based activities were disrupted for some interviewees, which had negative consequences for mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Individual and community stories of adaptation and resilience prior to and during the summer, including the opening of indoor recreational spaces, were shared; however, there was consensus about the need for improved risk communication and coordination at the community and territorial levels to address similar events in the future.


Coordinated community-based education, communication, and adaptation initiatives that are inclusive of local knowledge, values, and context are needed to address the expressed needs of community members associated with prolonged smoke events and wildfire seasons.


Wildfire smoke Mental health Physical health Adaptation Climate change Subarctic 



La période de juin à septembre 2014 a été la pire saison des incendies jamais enregistrée aux Territoires du Nord-Ouest, avec des épisodes de fumée prolongés et une mauvaise qualité de l’air. Dans le contexte des changements climatiques, notre étude visait à explorer de façon qualitative l’expérience vécue durant la saison des incendies de 2014 dans quatre localités des Territoires.


Notre équipe a mené 30 entretiens semi-directifs dans quatre localités (Yellowknife, N’Dilo, Detah et Kakisa). Nous avons intentionnellement composé notre échantillon de personnes aux antécédents et aux expériences très diverses. Les entretiens ont été enregistrés sur support vidéo, et la portion audio de chaque entretien a été transcrite pour en faciliter l’analyse et en dégager les grands thèmes.


Les personnes interrogées ont expliqué que leurs expériences d’évacuation et d’isolement et leurs sentiments de peur, de stress et d’incertitude ont eu des effets nuisibles aigus et prolongés sur leur bien-être mental et émotionnel. Les épisodes de fumée prolongés les ont amenées à passer beaucoup de temps à l’intérieur et ont été liés à des troubles respiratoires. Les activités terrestres et de subsistance de certaines des personnes interrogées ont été interrompues, ce qui a eu des conséquences négatives sur leur bien-être mental, émotionnel et physique. Des récits individuels et collectifs d’adaptation et de résilience avant et durant l’été, comme l’ouverture d’espaces récréatifs intérieurs, ont été partagées; un consensus s’est toutefois dégagé sur la nécessité d’améliorer la communication des risques et la coordination à l’échelle locale et territoriale pour faire face aux épisodes semblables à l’avenir.


Des initiatives communautaires de sensibilisation, de communication et d’adaptation coordonnées intégrant les connaissances, les valeurs et le contexte locaux sont nécessaires pour répondre aux besoins exprimés par les résidents en lien avec les épisodes de fumée prolongés et la saison des incendies.


Fumée d’incendies forestiers Santé mentale Santé physique Adaptation Changement climatique Subarctique 



We thank the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and the Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation for their partnership, particularly community coordinators Berna Martin, Nora Mackenzie, and Melaine Simba. We also thank the health and allied health staff in the Northwest Territories for their help, particularly Katie Kohl. Thank you to Jeremy Flatt and James Young for research assistance, and to Donald Cole for comments on an earlier draft of this article. Special thanks goes to the late Doug Ritchie for seeing that this study was possible and uniting our community to make it happen. Finally, thank you to the participants of this study for sharing their stories.


Health Canada’s Climate Change and Health Adaptation Program for First Nations and Inuit Communities.

Compliance with ethical standards

This project was reviewed and approved by the Aurora Research Institute (license numbers 15733; 15801), the Stanton Territorial Ethics Board, and the Wilfrid Laurier University Research Ethics Board (REB no. 4700). Prior to conducting any interviews, written or oral informed consent was obtained.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© The Canadian Public Health Association 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Warren Dodd
    • 1
  • Patrick Scott
    • 2
  • Courtney Howard
    • 3
    • 4
    • 5
  • Craig Scott
    • 6
  • Caren Rose
    • 7
    • 8
    • 9
  • Ashlee Cunsolo
    • 10
  • James Orbinski
    • 11
    • 12
    • 13
  1. 1.School of Public Health and Health SystemsUniversity of WaterlooWaterlooCanada
  2. 2.Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission for the Northwest Territories and NunavutYellowknifeCanada
  3. 3.Canadian Association of Physicians for the EnvironmentYellowknifeCanada
  4. 4.Northwest Territories Health and Social Services AuthorityYellowknifeCanada
  5. 5.Cumming School of MedicineUniversity of CalgaryCalgaryCanada
  6. 6.Ecology NorthYellowknifeCanada
  7. 7.School of Population and Public HealthUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  8. 8.British Columbia Centre for Disease ControlVancouverCanada
  9. 9.Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcomes ResearchVancouverCanada
  10. 10.Labrador Institute of Memorial UniversityHappy Valley-Goose BayCanada
  11. 11.Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health ResearchYork UniversityTorontoCanada
  12. 12.Faculty of Health, School of Health Policy & ManagementYork UniversityTorontoCanada
  13. 13.Dalla Lana School of Public HealthUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada

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