EXPERT REACTION: Australian bushfires
As fires continue to rage - below Australian experts comment on: Hazard reduction burns, Bushfire risk and safety, Mental health and community impacts, Smoke and health, Water impacts, Wildlife and ecology impacts.
Organisation/s: Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, Charles Darwin University, La Trobe University, RMIT University, The University of Adelaide, University of Melbourne, The University of Newcastle, Swinburne University, University of Wollongong, Murdoch University, Deakin University, University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, SAHMRI
These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.
Disasters like the current bushfires place pressure on men to be silent and stoic protectors, which makes them reluctant to seek help. They may fear career penalties if they seek psychological help after disasters.
For women in bushfire-affected areas, there’s an expectation that they will put their own needs last to support their husbands, partners and families who may be traumatised from fighting fires and protecting their homes.
Gendered expectations complicate fire plans with men frequently expected to defend homes or properties, and women frequently delaying leaving in order to persuade her husband or partner to leave with her.
We need to proactively consider the needs of all sectors within the community during emergencies, for any sector that we don’t include and involve in planning, we add to their vulnerability.
During this bushfire season, we need to engage with the approximately 5-6,000 internally displaced Australians, including those who have lost their homes, due to the bushfires.
The dissemination of disinformation, misinformation or even rumours is nothing new. However, technology including the internet and social media facilitate the dissemination of the information widely and quickly.
Most of the netizens failed to do a fact check of the news/posts they are retweeting/sharing. Internet users tend to share the post that they are interested in. It doesn't necessarily mean that they support the information shared in the post or have the intention to help spread the misinformation.
Spreading uncertainty is, among other things, a political strategy.
Given that the scientific consensus has emerged around the causes and impact of climate change, the goal of those who would thwart a concerted response is to confuse the issue in any way they can.
The impact of misinformation and disinformation is not simply to spread untruths, but to cast doubt on all information.
Dr Ian Weir is a bushfire architect and research expert with QUT
Australian Construction Code is deeply flawed.
We persist with building homes in bushfire-prone areas that are easy to ignite. Australia’s National Construction Code urgently needs revision to mandate against the use of combustible materials.
We would mainly want to have a conversation regarding wider community wellbeing and resilience, not necessarily related to trauma or death/grievances. That’s not our place to be speaking to. Also the mental health and wellbeing of volunteers and the fireys would be high on the list. They have been battling for a long time and aren’t getting the support they need.
Some quotes/convo starters:
- All of us will need to raise our voices to get the powers that be to invest in the mental health impact for the staff and volunteers who have played such a vital role in battling these disasters, and will keep doing so in years to come. Bushfires come and go to different parts of the state/country, but the fireys and volunteers are out here to stay. Let’s invest in more than just equipment and logistics, and give fireys and volunteers the tools to better perform their jobs in the future by investing in their mental health and wellbeing.
- Fireys and volunteers that have been battling the fires all around Australia will need to be mindful of their own mental health and wellbeing, in addition to their basic needs such as good nutrition and sleep. The impact of being out on the front line for days, or coordinating care away from home for weeks on end, will eventually take a toll on anyone. It may seem that your own mental health and wellbeing takes a second place, and it is easy to forget about, but you will be able to do your job better when you are in a better headspace. Simple exercises that only take 5-10 minutes per day can already make a massive difference.
- When the dust settles, we need to look at future-proofing the mental health and wellbeing, or the mental resilience of communities that we know will be likely to be hit by disasters. We teach lessons about physical hygiene, but are really bad at teaching good mental hygiene and mental fitness. We know bushfire, flood and other disaster-prone risk areas. Let’s also give people that live in these areas the mental skills to be better prepared for times in need.
- After the immediate threat of the fires (and any traumatic experience for that matter) is gone and people start to look at rebuilding, they will benefit from taking the time to work on their mental health and wellbeing, even if it is just a couple of minutes a day. For those who aren’t dealing with major mental health problems, who need professional help, simple psychological techniques can help clear your mind, work with your emotions or help you solve a challenge faster. There are heaps of resources out there that can be accessed for free.
- The impact of the bushfires, droughts and other natural disasters can extend far beyond people who are hit the most and are suffering from severe trauma and grief. It can impact those who have family that are evacuated and are worried about their future. It can impact the people who watch the news and feel powerless. This disaster has an impact on the entire nation’s mental health, which should not be underestimated.
One of our current projects on satellite-based earth observations has shown that we are able to track - and to a certain extent predict - the rate of vegetation recovery following a natural disaster such as a bushfire event. Given the scale of the current bushfires, satellites are the only tool to provide a consistent, large-scale picture of the damage.
The lack of any credible response by Australia to tackle greenhouse gas emissions has considerably diminished our ability to demand global reductions in emissions if we are to avoid the climate change-driven outcomes we are now seeing played out in the catastrophic fires impacting much of Australia.
The number of animals directly killed or injured in these fires is immense – as illustrated by Chris Dickman’s estimates. However, we must also be aware that many species have had the majority of their distributions devastated by these fires - the parma wallaby and red-legged pademelon are just a couple of the threatened species that have had the majority of their distribution destroyed in the fires.
Once a fire goes through an area, animals that did survive need to be able to find enough food to survive and this is much harder in burnt areas. There is unlikely to be much food in these areas until rains come and the vegetation responds. This drought-fire-drought trifecta means the impacts on biodiversity treble.
Looking forward, clearly climate change needs to be addressed. However, it is also worth noting that Australia has already lost 30+ species of mammal and many of these were ecosystem engineers whose fossicking on the ground turns over soil and increases the rate of leaf litter breakdown. Other ecosystem engineers persist only in Tasmania, and so could be restored to the east coast of the mainland (with suitable fox control). Restoring these ecosystem engineers would increase the rate of leaf litter breakdown, and thereby reduce fuel loads. This would mean fires are less likely to start, and would be more likely to go out. Our current rates of funding for biodiversity conservation is paltry compared to what needs to be done, so this needs to improve.
Bushfires affect people and communities alike, with many mental, physical, and social consequences over the following days, months, and years.
Three years after the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, a quarter of respondents still reported clinically significant levels of mental health issues, made worse by a range of stressful life experiences (e.g., rebuilding, economic hardship, relationship difficulties).
Looking ahead, an important recovery factor will be social cohesion within affected communities. Support should go to getting local groups and activities back up and running early, particularly those that are the only form of local activity for their members. For more information, please see the Beyond Bushfires final report.
This isn’t just about cyclical drought which politicians like to use to normalise the current situation (“we have always had droughts”), but about the fact that southern and inland areas of Australia are becoming much drier in a way that is overwhelming typical variability.
In the last 15 years, Australia saw eight of its 10 warmest years on record. Climate scientists tell us that, with climate change, weather systems increasingly move poleward. This means that storm tracks that once brought moisture from the southern ocean right up the east coast are not reaching as far, and inland and forested areas are becoming much drier.
Due to climate change, there is an increased need to consider fire risk and fire-proofing when reconstructing towns and buildings in bushfire-prone areas.
For instance, building according to higher fire-proofing standards, considering fire-resistant materials, emergency escape routes and in-built shelters.
When communities are damaged or destroyed due to bushfires, when rebuilding, it's important to reconsider the town's access situation, and even location.
In some cases, it might be valuable to evaluate whether a town needs to be moved to a less fire-prone area to improve bushfire resilience.
Despite resistance from people who become enraged at the very mention of climate or Greta Thunberg, these fires are unprecedented in Australian history and the reasons have all the hallmarks of climate change.
“It wrapped the whole country in a sheet of flame.”
This is how the Black Thursday fires of 6 February 1851 were described when a pair of bullockies left their burning campfire in a bone-dry field blasted by northerlies. The largest fire since European settlement, it consumed 5 million hectares. The cataclysmic megafires destroying Australia have now surpassed this, reaching 6.3 million hectares.
Even with another three months to go before the end of bushfire season, current fires by New Years’ Eve had burnt 5.9 million hectares. For additional context, this represents a full 11 per cent of Australia’s habitable margins. Apart from sheer size, the current fires were already unprecedented because of timing. Every major fire since European settlement has peaked in the Summer months, early February, whereas these fires started in Spring.
A month ago, Australia was confronted for the first time with the concept of the ‘mega-fire’ a word coined in 2005 to describe unsettling changes in wildfire behaviour across the United States. It was inspired by a fire that burnt for 25 days and consumed 56,000 hectares. Australia’s current fires dwarf this. They have burnt for 130 days, five times as long, and are now more than 1000 times larger.
This is unchartered territory. They began earlier than ever before, with a size and ferocity historically constrained to the first week of February. They promise to out-burn the largest fires of Australian history.
The fact that mortality has not yet breached the numbers seen in Victoria’s Black Saturday fires of 2009 is testimony to the courage of communities and firefighters with the assistance of other states and nations, the military, new technologies and, in some cases, the policies put in place by the Royal Commission. Had these not been in place the death toll should have been, by now, sitting at around 240, ten times its actual number.
The scale of these fires are not, as claimed by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, due to 'dry lighting strikes, self-combusting manure' or child firelighters 'running around like Little Lucifers'. These are all ignition sources, but there are no good reasons for arson to increase much above last year and dry lightning itself is a consequence, not an initial cause, of a large megafire. Ignition cannot predict fire size. What can predict size is climate as well as fuel. Into the mix, the Prime Minister has thrown a 12-fold increase in funding for fuel reduction burns in order to bait and switch us on the issue of climate change. Effort on all fronts are needed. What he doesn't want to do is have to admit anything that threatens one of our biggest exports - coal. This would admit his own government's culpability as well as theirs.
Time to approach disaster management (and its funding) in Australia differently.
The correct bushfire crisis impacting multiple states and territories simultaneously represents a ‘new normal’ of what climate-related disasters in Australia will look like.
This crisis is stretching and breaking traditional disaster management responses services beyond coping capacity. Climate change will just add to the complexity. We need new approaches to disaster management – a professional paid workforce, capable of round the clock, round the year and around the country deployment, capable of responding to multiple disaster types.
We also need new ways to fund this standing ‘disaster force’ and numerous mechanisms from different taxes, government investment, private-public partnerships are required to fund this.
Whether in the Amazon, Borneo or Australia, out-of-control wildfires are a signal of forests in crisis. These forests are being shattered by human land-uses and stressed by droughts and rising temperatures. We shouldn’t be surprised by these crazy fires. We should realise that they’re exactly what we’d expect when we abuse the land and our planet so egregiously.
The complexities around hazard reduction burning are large and growing. The number of people and businesses continues to increase in previously empty forested regions; the impact of smoke is an issue; the management of water catchments is important; there is now more scientific evidence on the benefits and downsides of various fire treatments; and the windows for undertaking prescribed burning have shrunk due to drought and climate change.
There is no universal ‘right’ level of prescribed fire because there are competing objectives to be considered, vastly differing ecosystems to be covered, and constantly shifting variables in demographics and land use. And even if you get all the objectives lined up you are still at the mercy of a fickle Australian weather system – too dry can be too dangerous to burn, too wet and little will burn.
Overlaying all of this are successive changes in governments at the local, state and national level – all with differing positions and varied appetites for land management policy. The list of public inquiries into these matters is long and goes back decades.
With many prescribed burns now conducted close to the expanding urban fringe and close to essential infrastructure and agriculture, the community tolerance levels are very low to heavy smoke and potential damage to delicate ecosystems. This has not been helped by some significant escapes of prescribed burns that have caused loss of houses and placed lives at risk.
Fuel reduction burns can decrease wildfire intensity, flame height and the forward rate of spread. But the effectiveness of this reduction is strongly dependent on the weather conditions that prevail on the day they are impacted by a wildfire. On extreme high- temperature and high-wind days, the effectiveness of most prescribed burning on stopping runs of large fires is reduced because medium and long-range spotting will see these areas overrun. The fuel levels around properties and communities can make a significant difference to the intensity of the fire as it impacts private and public assets. However, no amount of fuel reduction burning can reduce the risk to zero. We will always need to accept some residual risk.
Hazard reduction and prescribed burning are essential to reduce the impacts of increasingly intense and hotter fires, but are not sufficient in themselves. We need an urgent re-think about planning for bushfire prone areas, that is most of southern Australia. Fire authorities cannot implement necessary management fires when highly flammable bush runs up to houses and fences. Ever-encroaching residential and small-holder properties on native bush are increasing the threats to our natural environment and threats to biodiversity. The answer is not to clear more bush but to plan more intelligently.
Reinstating indigenous fire management practices, coupled with fire authorities and national parks strategic burning must be increased across the landscape. This will require a large increase in funds and resources for full time people to apply these management fires. The time to start action on this will be after the fires are over, not in a few years’ time.
In the leadup to the 2019/20 bushfire season authorities rightly emphasised the importance of timely evacuation in the face of bushfire threat. Media reports suggest that this has been effective. Early reports indicate very large numbers of homes destroyed. In the longer term, attention will have to be paid to making homes in at-risk areas less ‘ignitable’. This will require a fresh look at managing vegetation on private property and house construction and maintenance.
More people are living in high-risk bushfire areas, emergency services are stretched and the climate is rapidly changing. Future crises are inevitable. We must consider the prospect of a monstrous bushfire season, the likes of which we’ve never seen.
Bushfire destruction in Queensland and New South Wales this summer is without precedence. Damage nationwide is still lower than the destruction caused by the 2009 Black Saturday Bushfires when 173 lives and over 2000 homes were lost. The crisis is not over and further disasters such as tropical cyclones, severe storms and floods are also possible over the coming months further compounding demands for government assistance.
Risk Frontiers research through the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre has found that there are significant opportunities to move beyond a government-centric disaster management model by expanding capabilities through embracing a wider number of partnerships across businesses, NGOs and communities. There is a need to consider the changing nature of emergency services during a catastrophe, from one that would typically undertake direct taskings to one that would be the facilitator of community-led actions.
We spend too much on disaster relief and recovery and not enough on mitigation. We must consider the natural disaster risks we face across Australia. Floods, storms and tropical cyclones cause more financial damage, heatwaves and floods take more lives. This inevitably means we need more investment in mitigating floods, reducing impacts of heatwaves and strengthening buildings against cyclones, as well as responding in the aftermath of these bushfires.
It is well known that firefighters and other first responders are at heightened risk of PTSD. The current number of fires in Australia and the tragic devastation they are causing is unprecedented. Therefore it is crucial that firefighters are able to recognise PTSD and other mental health issues and to get treatment if needed as soon as possible.
However, many people avoid seeking help due the stigma that still surrounds mental health. Anonymous online or phone services are available to help those in need. It's important to note that PTSD would be more likely to occur in the coming months, once the fire season is over.
We endorse the need for a national approach to mental health and wellbeing recovery that includes a longer term perspective and goes beyond the important clinical interventions to also promote the role of social protective factors highlighted in the Beyond Bushfires study (www.beyondbushfires.org.au).
Supporting individual and community recovery is a complex process because of the interplay between the many different impacts arising from a disaster experience – including human, natural environment, financial, built environment, political, cultural and social. We are being supported by the Bushfire Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre and working in partnership with emergency management and recovery agencies across Australia to develop evidence based guidelines to support decision making about recovery strategies.
The recent bush fires are unprecedented in many ways-having such devastating impact on many communities and flora and fauna. Although the bush fire season is not over yet, many already affected communities will need significant help and support to start rebuilding their lives. Rebuilding infrastructure and supporting communities from such large-scale disasters may take several years, and recovering from the economic, health and social damages will be challenging. The scale of the bush fire impacts places significant pressure on recovery and reconstruction efforts. The different needs and challenges of the affected communities should be considered paramount in rebuilding their lives.
Therefore, organisations that assist in these areas should refrain from using broad-brush approaches and focus on rebuilding for future conditions. In most instances, the immediate needs of the survivors are addressed, while the mid to long term support tend to face ongoing challenges. Therefore, the different agencies, NGO’s and other organisations need to coordinate and communicate to best assist the communities for long term recovery.
The smoke generated by the current bush fires is a very serious health issue especially for those with respiratory conditions such as Asthma, Emphysema, Bronchitis and even upper respiratory conditions such as laryngitis.
Anyone with a respiratory condition must take medications as directed by their doctor. It is recommended to stay inside. Furthermore, if you are a runner then it would be a good idea to take the day off.
The central issue is not only the large particles that are inhaled but more importantly the very fine particles that are less than 2.5microns (pm2.5). These particles cause inflammation and get inhaled very deep into the lungs causing the lung to become inflamed. This is a big problem for people with respiratory conditions. They also can cross over from the lung into the bloodstream and cause inflammation in areas such as the heart."
The sheer numbers of people who have been exposed to very high levels of smoke pollution over extended time periods in the recent bushfire crisis is unprecedented. In addition to the fine particles that are damaging to human health, smoke from bushfires contains significant amounts of different gases that are also toxic (such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, acrolein and hydrogen cyanide).
These additional airborne toxins are not measured at air quality monitoring stations (as they would usually be below the detection limits of available instruments) but nevertheless will impact on the health of those breathing the smoke. These gases fall into the toxicological classes of upper and lower respiratory tract disorders, eye irritation, disruption of oxygen transport and carcinogens. The combined effect of breathing in these gases and the particles is likely to put further stress on the body.
Many of the bushfires have directly impacted important drinking water catchments. In particular, fires have severely and extensively burnt major drinking water catchments for Sydney and the Shoalhaven region in NSW. While rainfall is desperately needed to help extinguish fires and alleviate the drought, contaminated runoff to waterways will present a new wave of challenges regarding risks to drinking water quality.
Bushfire ash is largely composed or organic carbon, which will biodegrade in waterways, potentially leading to reduced oxygen concentrations and poor water quality. Ash also contains concentrated nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorous, which may stimulate the growth of algae and cyanobacteria in waterways.
Following the fires, these drinking water catchments are now in a very unstable condition and highly prone to erosion of topsoil. All of these impacts will challenge drinking water treatment plants and make it much more difficult to reliably produce high quality drinking water. While major impacts are unlikely to encountered before a substantial rainfall event, some will be long-term with observably poorer raw water quality likely to persist for years.
One of the many issues raised by the continuing bushfire disaster is the competing demand for water needed to fight the fires versus water needed for agriculture and drinking. In the drought, there are very few potential inland water sources for fire-fighting, apart from the rivers that still have running water, such as the Murray and the Hawkesbury-Nepean.
On the coast, much of the water-bombing of fires has to use salt water, which results in long-term damage to soils. Furthermore, some coal-fired power stations are using vast quantities of freshwater for coal washing and cooling. In particular, Mount Piper power station near Lithgow is diverting freshwater that would otherwise flow into Warragamba Dam, Sydney’s main source of drinking water.
For decades now, climate, fire and ecological experts have all warned about the links between climate change and extreme fire events. Sadly, these predictions have now come to fruition, devastating both in scale and their impact on people, communities, and Australia’s remarkable and unique plants and animals.
This terrible summer must be the point where we as a nation take urgent and substantial action to combat climate change and its dire consequences. It’s too early to assess the full toll of these fires on species, but given their huge size and severity, and that they’re still burning in many areas, already threatened species may have been pushed over the edge to extinction and once relatively common and more abundant species may now be vulnerable.
We have grave fears for many rainforest species, which typically don’t experience fire and hence aren’t particularly resilient.
Elsewhere, Kangaroo Island’s dunnart and glossy black cockatoo, Victoria’s long-footed potoroo, and regent honeyeaters, are among the many species likely to have suffered substantial impacts. It’s not too late to change our course however, and we must act swiftly to conserve Australia’s remarkable nature.
Reverberations of these epic bushfires will be felt for generations. The current drought is as bad as the Federation drought but it is hotter. Hotter drought means both elevated bushfire risk and unstoppable fires as we’ve all seen in the media. Hotter drought also has consequences after the flames pass -- the capacity of plants and animals to both survive and subsequently recover is less certain under warmer, drier conditions. Tree mortality and seedling survival as well as food and shelter for our animals are all threatened by harsher conditions. Further, we face a more fiery future and a real risk of more drought-heat-fire interplay further threatening our iconic landscapes. Effective policy and thinking will need to incorporate these realities going forward.
The fires around Australia are tragic at many levels and the cost in human life and of animals, both domestic and native, is appalling. Perhaps less well understood is the potential cost in terms of future vegetation. Australian plants in many vegetation types have evolved in response to a high fire regime over tens of millions of years and they are well known for their capacity to regenerate, either from seed or vegetatively, after major fires.
However, the risk is that we are now seeing fires that are so intense that they are reaching temperatures where these adaptations are no longer effective, and if this continues we will begin to see plant species losses from burnt sites as their regeneration processes fail. Over time, this has the potential to be catastrophic. The short-term solution is to invest much more heavily in fire-fighting technology, but the only long term solution is to reverse the impact of climate change by reducing the level of critical greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This is a global catastrophe that has now hit Australia hard. There is no reason to believe that this is an isolated event.
This figure is based on a 2007 report for the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) on the impacts of land clearing on Australian wildlife in New South Wales (NSW).
To calculate the impacts of land clearing on the State’s wildlife, the authors obtained estimates of mammal population density in NSW and then multiplied the density estimates by the areas of vegetation approved to be cleared.
Estimates of density were obtained from published studies of mammals in NSW and from studies carried out in other parts of Australia in similar habitats to those present in NSW.
The authors deliberately employed highly conservative estimates in making their calculations. The true mortality is likely to be substantially higher than those estimated.
Using that formula, co-author of the original report Professor Chris Dickman estimates that 480 million animals have been affected since the bushfires in NSW started in September 2019. This figure only relates to the state of NSW. Many of the affected animals are likely to have been killed directly by the fires, with others succumbing later due to the depletion of food and shelter resources and predation from introduced feral cats and red foxes.
The figure includes mammals, birds and reptiles and does not include insects, bats or frogs. The true loss of animal life is likely to be much higher than 480 million. NSW’s wildlife is seriously threatened and under increasing pressure from a range of threats, including land clearing, exotic pests and climate change.
Australia supports a rich and impressive diversity of mammals, with over 300 native species. The continent is uniquely dominated by marsupials and is the only great land mass to contain three major groups of living mammals: marsupials, monotremes (egg-laying platypus and echidna) and placentals. About 244 species, or 81% of this distinctive fauna, are found only in Australia.
Some 34 species and subspecies of native mammals have become extinct in Australia over the last 200 years, the highest rate of loss for any region in the world.
This expert list has been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives and reflect independent opinion on this topic.
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How bushfires can make their own weather
Intense bushfires can cause violent fire-generated storms, with lightning and severe winds.
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Smothered by smoke: How to cope
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