EXPERT REACTION: Bushfire aftermath
As fires continue in some parts of the country, the massive clean-up effort has begun, losses counted and people are pulling their lives back together. In this reaction, experts comment on the aftermath of fire and the short and longer term impacts on mental health, wildlife, climate change attitudes and the contamination of food, water and the environment.
Organisation/s: Flinders University, The University of Queensland, Edith Cowan University, The University of Sydney, University of South Australia, RMIT University, Charles Sturt University, Western Sydney University, La Trobe University, University of Queensland, Griffith University, CRC Care
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.
Mr Glen Cuttance is a Senior Research Fellow at Flinders University and a Project Manager at the Torrens Resilience Institute at Flinders University
The communities affected by these ongoing, extreme fires are drawing on vast amounts of support and goodwill from their own personal and community support networks, within and outside their local townships or areas. These communities will require continued support to cope and adapt in the coming weeks, months and years ahead. We can all assist in this by making deliberate choices - buy local produce and products, holiday locally and support the local economy by supporting small businesses and tourism whenever possible.
Professor Justin Kenardy a clinical psychologist in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland
At times of crisis, families are the key to resilience in children. Families provide a supportive structure for children to cope with significant challenges.
The emotional impact of disaster and trauma on very young children is sometimes overlooked. Very young children are vulnerable to the emotional impact of disaster, trauma and loss. Children under six rely heavily on adults to support them through these events.
Adolescents often need to be included in responses to disaster as it will be psychologically beneficial for them to feel useful and part of something positive.
Children (and adults) need to hear positive stories of recovery as a balance to the doom and gloom of the disaster. Focusing on the media coverage of the negative outcomes is not good for children especially, and adults need to be careful to monitor and manage the exposure of children to these types of stories.
It’s not how objectively bad a traumatic experience might be, it is how it is experienced that predicts whether it leads to post-traumatic stress. For example, a small child might experience something as much more frightening than an adult because they don’t fully comprehend it. Reinstatement of some form of routine is an important part of recovery for children. Schools are key to this and become central to recovery in children. We have developed resources for schools after recent disasters.
Professor Alex Haslam is Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology within the University of Queensland's School of Psychology
The sense of shared identity that emerges in the context of events like these is a key resource that helps people manage the process effectively and that is a source of resilience down the track. It is also the case though that it is important not to squander this — as it is something that we will need to draw on in the future as a source of resilience and to make the changes to reduce the likely impact of future events.
Evidence from other disasters around the world (e.g., the UK, New Zealand) suggests that where leaders help to lock in this sense of ‘us-ness’ this helps communities recover and also consolidates their leadership. If they don’t though, this can be very problematic down the line.
Greg Penney is a firefighter and an ECU PhD student investigating wildfire suppression
Wildfires may be an ongoing part of Australia's future, but the severity of fire behaviour experienced during mega fires requires traditional suppression strategies to be re-evaluated. My research provides new insights into firefighter safety during catastrophic fire conditions as well as potential improvements in urban design at the rural-urban interface. Using this knowledge will provide firefighters, engineers and town planners with a suite of detailed technical approaches and analysis that will enhance the resilience of communities in areas prone to wildfire impacts.
Dr Ivan Hanigan, Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research (CAR), Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, The University of Sydney
There is a common misunderstanding about the bushfire smoke air pollution impacts on cardiovascular diseases. The health impacts of bushfire smoke are diverse, more than just impacts on the respiratory tract. There is a general lack of appreciation in the community for the well-known air pollution impacts on cardiovascular diseases (such as heart attacks and stroke).
Air pollution can affect the heart and brain by toxicity and inflammation responses throughout the bloodstream. The evidence for this has developed over many years, primarily through studies of urban air pollution in cities, but also in research such as our team from Australia looking at bushfire smoke events in Sydney.
With the arts seen as the canary in the coal mine, it is no surprise dancers are stepping up to the frontline in rethinking climate futures. Our research shows focusing on a deficit approach to climate issues with young children is not working, and that dance and creatives arts can redress this. Focusing on an individual 'saviour' model is creating eco-anxiety and apathy and is not working. So, what can dance do? Connecting with our bodies can help us connect with environment, and new research shows that young children are already doing this and have much to teach us about environmental relations.
I don’t expect those in the current government, who deny the human link with global warming, will change their minds. For them it is not a matter of science; it’s an ideological issue. No amount of scientific evidence will change this.
If you are planning a visit to Kangaroo Island in the year, still go. The pristine beaches and spectacular geology are still there. The regeneration is always inspiring to watch, and you will be supporting Kangaroo Island's tourism-based economy in what is going to be a really tough time.
Bushfires have decimated and affected tourism resources (e.g. natural environment, attractions), tourism infrastructure and superstructure (e.g. ports, roads, hiking trails, telecommunication networks) as well as major tourism facilities and suppliers (e.g. hotels, restaurants, entrepreneurs). The long-term and short-term impact on destination visitation and image (e.g. attractiveness, safety), employment, entrepreneurship is immeasurable.
It is well known that firefighters and other first responders are at heightened risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The current number fires in Australia and the tragic devastation they are causing is unprecedented. It’s therefore crucial that firefighters are able to recognize PTSD and other mental health issues and to get treatment if needed as soon as possible.
Many people still avoid seeking help due to the stigma that surrounds mental health. Anonymous online or phone services are available to help those in need.
PTSD would be more likely to occur in the coming months once the fire season is over.
Many Australians are at increased risk of PTSD and other mental health issues due to this horrific fire season. They also need to be informed, aware and seek help if needed. People can reduce the risk of mental health issues and increase their resilience and coping mechanisms by engaging in self-care behaviours.
People may also feel a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. However, there are various ways people can offer their help. For example, donating money to organizations helping those affected by the fires, joining a group and cooking food for the firefighters, sending clothing, or making mittens for burnt animals.
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed, anxious, frightened, and begin to question why. It’s also part of the human condition to re-run what has happened over and over, and to feel uncertain about what the future may hold. There may be times when you feel agitated, edgy and anxious, and other times when you feel detached and numb. When our nervous system is overwhelmed, fear, sadness, helplessness, even guilt, anger and shame, are all normal initial feelings to experience.
While preventing the deaths of people and animals will always be the most important consideration in managing fire risk, this does not mean that individuals who have lost their home and physical possessions do not find the experience highly traumatic.
Survivors of fire commonly experience anger, sadness, misplaced guilt, loss of energy, disorientation, and a lack of purpose. Understandably, the closer their ties to their home and possessions, the worse they are likely to feel.
Psychologically, sentimental value is far more important to our wellbeing than monetary value.
Possessions are tightly bound to our identity and personal meaning. Possessions hold sentimental connections to our loved ones, our memories, our comfort and security, to where we see ourselves in the world, and are often basic survival necessities.
One of the most difficult things for fire survivors to cope with is that they must depend on others for access to basic possessions and utilities.
After the Black Saturday bushfires, many survivors reported feeling that there was a stigma against grieving for the loss of one’s home and possessions when no loss of life had occurred. We need to support bushfire survivors by not placing conditions on their grief.
After the Black Saturday bushfires, approximately 25 per cent of victims were experiencing lasting distress three years on. However, one-third of these individuals had not sought out psychological services. We need to encourage survivors to reach out for mental health support.
This summer, there have been overwhelming levels of damage and destruction from the many bushfires that have impacted all states and territories of Australia. Some of these fires have been reported to have been caused by lightning, powerlines, and others, the work of arsonists. Importantly, the cause of these fires needs to be accurately determined. But how do you find the cause of a bushfire? This task is often seen as an impossible given the extent of fire that has impacted the landscape over many weeks, and in some cases months. An internationally accepted process is the key. From identifying causes such as arson, lightning or even exhaust carbon from a vehicle, the examination of a bushfire scene to determine the cause follows a specific procedure. A critical part of dealing with bushfires is to determine the cause. The process requires a good understanding of bushfire behaviour, along with the combined skills of a police officer and firefighter. This will be an important phase in providing answers relating to the cause of many of the damaging fires we have seen so far this summer in Australia.
In Victoria, these are not (yet) the largest fires reported, although the area burnt (1.2 million hectares in Victoria alone) is now on a par with the 2002-3 Alpine fires and the 2006-7 Great Divide fires, the largest two fires since 1939’s Black Friday fires. On the other hand, 1983’s Ash Wednesday fires and 2009’s Black Saturday fires burnt less than half of the currently burnt area in Victoria – but a lot of people lived in the burnt areas. In other words, the Alpine and Great Divide fires were largely environmental disasters, and Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday were largely human disasters. The current fires are unique in that this is the first time we’ve dealt with fires of such a large scale that also impact so many people (~30,000 living within burnt areas), and we have to deal with both the environmental and human disaster on a large scale at the same time.
Many of the towns and communities affected accommodate some of the poorest and most vulnerable Australians, who have lower incomes, poorer access to healthcare and other essential services, less secure employment and, on average, are more likely to be older and/or have a disability or long-term health condition. We, as a nation, need to acknowledge that the vulnerabilities of our rural communities have long been documented, and that while it is good to hope for the best, we should prepare for the worst. That means taking a long-term view to build the resilience, capacity and strength of these communities.
Historically, people with disabilities have not had a seat at the planning table, so they are increasingly vulnerable to disaster because their support needs, in emergency situations, are not understood.
One in five Australians live with a disability and we have an ageing population, which means many people face challenges like mobility issues and power dependency during bushfires and evacuations.
Our research shows that Involving people with disability and their representatives in disaster planning is key to ensuring that our emergency services sector and local councils have the right information, tools, and responses to ensure that people with disability, their family and carers are safe before, during and after a disaster.
The scale of the devastation this summer’s bushfires have caused and the changes that we’ll all need to make as a consequence of our changing climate mean that we’re going to need to solve more and more of the affected communities' problems. As this summer has shown, Governments can’t solve every problem, and in some circumstances, won’t. That’s where social enterprise can step in and fill the gap.
Teachers hold a unique place for a young child. Outside their family, they’re one of the most trusted and familiar faces who, in their role as a teacher, provide a welcoming and secure environment for the child to learn and develop. When young children are confronted by trauma, they carry all their worries, confusion and emotions with them, and that’s where teachers need to be prepared.
[On the impact of fires on babies and toddlers]: My message for parents is: Don’t worry. Babies actually don’t care too much about the environment around them. Their basic need is that their primary care-giver is providing responsive care. All you need to do is to be there for your baby and respond to their needs with loving care and they will be okay.
They won’t be aware of the fires – but babies and toddlers often don’t like any change in routine, and they can pick up on stress or distress in those around them.
The behaviours that parents might see, are:
- Babies (both bottle-fed and breastfed) feeding more regularly and being unsettled during feeds
- Night waking
- Regressions in learnt behaviours
- Increased clinginess
- Being more easily distressed or being withdrawn.
Babies that were previously sleeping through the night might now wake regularly; toddlers that were toilet trained might now wet their pants; and babies who would previously be happy going to Dad, might now only want Mum.
These behaviours are very normal, and will resolve with time and appropriate care. What your child is effectively saying to you, is ‘this is quite scary for me.’ They can’t say it with words, so they show you with their behaviours.
If your child wants to feed frequently, then it’s a good thing to allow them to. If they don’t want to be separated from you, then give them the proximity and comfort they need. With time and love the issues will resolve themselves.
Where we build communities and how we plan them in fire risk areas has long been a concern of planning systems. Increased fire risk, and increasing populations, make this connection more significant and urgent.
This risk is significant for rural communities, but also in rapidly growing urban fringe areas, peri-urban communities and coastal towns. These areas are popular locations but making them fire-safe is difficult.
The Stretton Royal Commission into the 1939 fires and the Royal Commission for the 2009 fires in Victoria each recommended increased management of urban and peri-urban growth, and the design of new buildings. However, this has not dramatically reshaped where people choose to live.
Managing vegetation is important, as is the design of individual houses, but recognising that many places are not suited for housing and designing communities where multiple safe access options are available is also vital.
The current bushfires will have a devastating impact on native wildlife. There are immediate effects of fire on wildfire, short-term effects in the aftermath, and long-term effects that can extend over decades.
Wildlife will be impacted in three major ways:
Direct mortality. Animals exposed to the fires will die from burns and radiant heat. Many species are not capable of moving away from the fireground and will die in the fire. The number of animals killed in a fire depends on the intensity of the fire and the capacity of different species to avoid radiant heat. Many animals will seek refuge underground in burrows and cracks in the soil, or sheltered from fires in wet gullies and other parts of the landscape previously thought to be damp enough to slow down or reduce the intensity of bushfires. The prolonged drought, linked to climate change, has increased the intensity of these fires and the flammability of these areas, such that many of these refuges are burning in the current fires. Consequently, many more animals are likely to die directly in these fires than previous fires.
Starvation and predation. Many animals that survive the immediate impacts or escape the fire will starve to death in the days and weeks that follow because there simply is not enough food and shelter to support them. The roots, foliage, seeds, fruits and invertebrates that they feed on will have been incinerated. Further, without vegetation to shelter in, they are more exposed and vulnerable to environmental conditions (heat, cold, wind), and to native and feral predators that often invade burnt areas.
Long-term loss of resources. Population recovery after fire depends on availability of suitable habitat and key habitat components (e.g. shelter and refuge, den sites, food). The time required for particular habitat components to become available varies (some within months, a few years, many decades) and so species differ in their post-fire responses. However, the extent and intensity of these fires means that vast areas will be depleted of key resources for many years and decades, even as the vegetation slowly recovers. This means that even if animals from unburnt areas are able to repopulate burnt areas, there may not be enough food and shelter to support them. While some grasses and shrubs may re-sprout relatively quickly, other resources will take years or decades to recover. For example, nectar production is eliminated or severely reduced for many years following fire, and replacing hollow-bearing trees burnt to the ground will take centuries.
The geographic extent, size and intensity of these bushfires are likely to have population-level consequences for many species. The sheer extent of these fires means that for many species there may not be surviving populations from which individuals can repopulate burnt areas. The ecological importance and value of remaining unburnt patches of vegetation, as sources for the recovery of wildlife populations after the fire, can’t be overstated. Working out the best ways to conserve and protect these unburnt areas over the coming decades should be a high priority.
These fires are likely to reduce the abundance and distribution of many common species, and to have dire consequences for rare and range-restricted species that are endemic to the fire-affected areas (e.g., Long-footed Potoroo, Glossy Black Cockatoo, Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby, Diamond Python, Rock Warbler). Many threatened species that occur in the fire-affected areas are also likely to be impacted, either immediately through direct mortality or loss of habitat (e.g. Greater Glider) or in the future through loss of resources (e.g. Swift Parrot, Grey-headed Flying-fox). Environmental conditions (e.g. rainfall) in the months and years post-fire will greatly influence the rate of recovery of habitats and thus, animal populations.
Which species are most vulnerable to bushfires?
In the short term:
- those that are not able to avoid or move away from fire and radiant heat (e.g. Koala);
- those that lose critical resources (food, shelter, refuge) and therefore are vulnerable to starvation or predation in the post-fire environment.
In the long-term:
- Small and isolated populations are vulnerable to being completely eliminated because there may not be nearby source populations for recovery. Localised populations, especially in patchy and isolated habitats, are at risk of local extinction.
- Species with specialist requirements and long-delayed recovery after fire. Such species critically depend on unburnt areas for persistence until the burned environment is again suitable. Such species are vulnerable to large, severe bushfires in which there are few unburnt patches, and to repeated fires in a region, cumulatively depleting available habitat.
- Threatened species, that typically are sparsely distributed, have small populations, and are already vulnerable due to other factors. Bushfire adds another factor that exacerbates the existing vulnerability.
Are the numbers of animals affected as high as some reports indicate?
The full extent of the impact of these fires is unlikely to ever be accurately quantified.
Estimates that 480 million birds, mammals and reptiles have been affected in NSW alone are based on reliable estimates of the density of animals per hectare, multiplied by the number of hectares burnt (up to Christmas). As such, it is a robust best-estimate at the time of quantification. However, this measure is likely to underestimate the true number of animals affected, as it did not include amphibians, bats or invertebrates, and the fires have subsequently increased in size.
The role of hazard reduction burns
Hazard reduction burning (HRB) in the cooler months aims to reduce fuel loads in forests and bushland and therefore reduce the intensity and spread of wildfires to protect both human and natural assets (e.g. protecting rainforest gullies, old growth forests). The effectiveness of HRB in altering fire behaviour:
- is greatest in the first 1 to 3 years after burning but diminishes rapidly after that;
- is greatest close (<500m) to the asset you are trying to protect;
- is greatest on benign fire weather days and lowest on the extreme fire weather days when most loss of life and property occurs.
Consequently, unrealistically large areas would need to be treated regularly to reduce fire intensity and reduce fire probability, and even then, would only be effective on low to moderate fire danger days. In Victoria, DELWP’s estimate of how much they could reduce the risk to life and property on a bad day, if they’d been able to complete all their HRB (~230,000ha per annum), is around 18%, compared to the risk if they had done no prescribed burning. Thus, HRB should be strategically focused on reducing risk to life and property, not a crude hectare target, which leads to perverse outcomes. Ironically, in some circumstances, HRB can result in changing plant communities to favour species that recover most quickly after fire and are potentially more flammable, thereby actually increasing fire risk.
The seasonal window in which HRB can be carried out safely is diminishing under climate change. Climate change is increasing the length of the fire season, and drying forest fuel loads, leaving less opportunity for HRB to be used safely. Agencies will need to be better resourced if they are to make the most of those ever-diminishing windows of opportunity.
Hazard reduction burning is but one tool among many and it needs be done in a sophisticated and evidence-based way if it is to have a significant impact protecting both human communities and nature.
What we need to do now:
- Careful analysis of how conditions (bushfire hazard) have changed (and why) and what science predicts will be the changes in the years ahead.
- Critically and creatively evaluate our options of how to prepare better for these changing conditions. We are clearly entering uncharted waters, more of the same is not an option.
- We need to identify our shared roles and responsibilities as private citizens and all levels of government in seriously addressing the causes of climate change; and in the shorter term, explore and implement measures we can take now that will lessen the impact of these unprecedented challenges.
It is natural to think the scale of this ongoing bushfire disaster should precipitate a mass shift in community sentiment about climate change. To some extent this may be the case, but there is a caveat.
Our own research, and research from others, suggests that such a shift will require the correct ‘signals’ from all sides of the political spectrum, because political leaders are more important in shaping attitudes to climate change than we like to think.
People are more likely to change their climate attitudes based on who they last voted for, than to change their vote because of their attitudes to climate change. Without true bipartisan political support for climate action, the only shift in community attitudes we might witness is to the extremes (aided and abetted by our social media environment).
Australia’s bushfire season is far from over, and the cost to wildlife has been epic. A sobering estimate has put the number of animals killed across eastern Australia at 480 million - and that’s a conservative figure. Animals recognise the distinct sounds of fire. Reed frogs flee towards cover and eastern-red bats wake from torpor when played the crackling sounds of fire. It’s common to see large animals, such as kangaroos, fleeing a fire. Other animals prefer to stay put, seeking refuge in burrows or under rocks. Smaller animals will happily crash a wombat burrow if it means surviving a fire.
From here, animals can repopulate the charred landscape as it recovers. The hours, days, and weeks after fire bring a new set of challenges. Food resources will often be scarce, and in the barren landscape some animals, such as smaller mammals, are more visible to hungry predators. Perhaps because of the risks of moving through an exposed landscape, several Australian mammals have learned to minimise movement following fire. This might allow some mammal populations to recover from within a fire footprint. We still have a lot to learn about how Australia’s wildlife detect and respond to fire. Filling in the knowledge gaps might lead to new ways of helping wildlife adapt to our rapidly changing world.
The 2019-20 bushfires of southern and eastern Australia have directly impacted the health of Australia’s wildlife through mass mortality, severe burn-related injuries impacting welfare and survival, injuries of unknown severity and consequence due to smoke inhalation, nutritional and behavioural stress, increased risk of predation and increased exposure to environmental and human toxins. Many of these impacts are poorly understood because of the unprecedented nature of this environmental catastrophe, but previous severe bushfires in southeastern Australia provide evidence that mortality rates are typically very high and animals that survive can face severe, progressive and painful injuries, as well as a dramatically increased risk of death due to predation and other causes. In addition to significant resourcing for immediate response in the rescue, triage and treatment of affected wildlife, there is a need to invest heavily in the long term recovery of wildlife populations across bushfire affected areas, including the management of other threats to recovering populations, such as invasive species and disease. In the recovery phase, caution will be needed to not exacerbate the threat to species by introducing exotic diseases through interventions including food and water provision, and in wildlife translocations and reintroductions.
The current bushfires are catastrophic for Australia’s unique flora and fauna. Like koalas, many other unique marsupials that have evolved in Australia over tens of millions of years, are now at even greater risk of significant population declines, or even extinctions. These species have been diminishing due to land-clearing and urbanisation since European settlement, but climate change is now threatening to eclipse even those threats.
So what next? It is now time to urgently consider the bigger picture and how to assist decision-makers in understanding the importance of biodiversity, not just for its intrinsic value, but for human well-being and its role in climate change mitigation.
We need an integrated, national workforce that transcends artificial borders and political agendas and is dedicated to the environment. This will be separate to protecting human life and property. This workforce will facilitate the protection and rehabilitation of our natural biodiversity assets (including Australia’s unique native animals) during and after climate change disasters such as the current bushfires, while helping to mitigate Australia’s own substantial contribution to global warming.
I have received many messages and emails asking whether we should be feeding wildlife in the context of the fires. My stance is that this is a completely new situation and all the usual rules are out the window. The scale of the devastation and the ongoing drought has meant that a lot of animals are facing an almost dead landscape with virtually nothing to eat. Any nutritious food can probably be put out for the animals - grain, pet food, frozen peas etc. But not bread or mince or items with salt or sugar. And of course, water is essential. Everyone everywhere should be rigging up 'birdbaths'.
In the rebuilding process, it’s important to be aware of the impacts of fire on Aboriginal cultural heritage.
Fires happen every year and Aboriginal heritage places have survived for over 65, 000 years. It's the scale and intensity of the fires which is different now. We need an audit of what has been lost, as well as plans to manage heritage in fire-affected areas into the future. Rehabilitation could cause further damage if heritage is not taken into account.
We can expect that these fires will drastically affect the number of surviving culturally modified trees, such as canoe trees. Cultural heritage made of stone (stone tool sites, rockshelters, rock art, grinding grooves) is less vulnerable but stone can crack in intense heat and soot deposits can affect rock art pigments. With loss of vegetation cover, erosion can damage the integrity of archaeological sites. The upside is that much more can be seen on the ground, so previously hidden heritage is visible.
The survival of physical places is just one aspect, though. Only Aboriginal people can speak to the impacts on their deep and ongoing connections to country.
The National Bushfire Recovery Agency should consult with Aboriginal communities whose heritage is affected as a matter of urgency. It's critical that Traditional Owners lead the process and it needs to be funded properly.
Many communities affected by the bushfire are reliant on the summer tourist season. The events over the past weeks will have long-term implications for the visitor economy in these communities. Of particular concern is business continuity and maintaining jobs in tourism in these affected areas given the losses over this peak tourist period. It’s important to support these businesses to ensure tourism experiences and products are not abandoned in the aftermath of these events.
A fast recovery and getting visitors back to the regions as soon as it is safe to do so is essential. Let people know you are ‘open for business’ again.
The visitor economy will be an important part of the recovery effort. Communicate with visitors when it is safe to return to the region. Implementing marketing campaigns to encourage visitors back is essential. You may have to offer discount or extra incentives to get people back.
Whilst there will be many challenges, this destruction also provides an opportunity to rebuild and reimage the visitor experience. The end of a crisis is an opportunity to rebuild/change the destination/product image.
In the past we have seen great tourism products come as a result of a natural disaster, for example, the cyclones that occurred in Tropical North Queensland. Following this, resorts were rebuilt and improved.
We have an understanding of what’s involved as we conducted stakeholder interviews immediately following the bushfire at Binna Burra Lodge on the 8th September 2019, which destroyed most of the heritage-listed buildings at the lodge. Binna Burra Lodge has plans to rebuild and come back better than ever.
Bushfires and environmental contamination
The recent megafires seen in Australia, Brazil and the United States raise yet another issue. Such fires are themselves major sources of contamination. The burning process itself affects air, soil and water quality; firefighting foams contain potentially toxic chemicals such as PFAS; and when buildings and infrastructure burn down, they release pollutants into the environment. The debris left behind after a major fire – including animal carcasses and twisted metal – is also a potential environmental hazard. Climate change will make such fires more frequent and intense.
The warmer soil and extended drought associated with climate change also has consequences beyond increased fire activity. Climate change is increasing soil erosion, intensifying storms and, in some areas, delivering more extreme rainfall and flooding. These phenomena could increase our exposure to soil contaminants – including heavy metals and metalloids such as mercury, arsenic and lead, as well as PFAS – contained in airborne soil and dust, carried via floods or released from melting ice. Warmer conditions also increase the conversion of contaminants – such as methane, ammonia, nitrous oxide, sulfides and mercury – to vapour form, which can be dispersed on the wind. Furthermore, higher temperatures can increase the toxicity of certain contaminants by increasing their bioavailability (a measure of how easily chemicals are taken up into our bodies or into plants, animals and micro-organisms that we consume).
The protection of water supplies need to be a vital part of emergency fire response. Wild and prescribed fires can significantly impact aquatic systems and wetland sediments. Post-fire soils offer risks as they are vulnerable to erosion, which may impact drinking water catchments. Additionally, through wetland subterraneous burns for extended periods, can also affect groundwater quality.
One of the dangers of a fire can be toxic fumes from burning materials. Chemicals used to fight the fire can also contain toxic materials. The heat from a fire can also cause bacteria in food to multiply.
Here are some key food safety points after a fire:
- throw out any food that has been near a fire, including food in cans and jars even if it appears ok as the heat can split seals and the outside of cans and jars can contaminate the food if opened
- any raw food, or food in packaging such as cardboard, plastic wrap, screw-topped jars and bottles should also be thrown out
- throw out food from a refrigerator as the refrigerator seal isn’t airtight, fumes can get inside
- wash cooking utensils exposed to fire-fighting chemicals in soapy hot water, then sanitise in 1 tablespoon of chlorine bleach per 2 litres of water and rinse.
- when you dispose of food, wrap it in newspaper and place in the rubbish bin. A small volume of food may be safely buried.
- where larger quantities have to be disposed of your local government’s environmental health officer should be contacted.
- without correct disposal, fly breeding, animal and pest scavenging may result and increase the risk of the spread of infectious diseases.
Also follow your local council’s advice about drinking water which may have to be boiled. If you have power bring the water to a rolling boil which will kill any bacteria and allow to cool. If your council advises that the water supply has been contaminated with chemicals you’ll need to use bottled water.
If you live in a smoke affected area and grow your own vegetables wash them well before eating.
Long term impact: The impact will be wide-reaching and long-lasting. It will be particularly difficult for those who are still recovering from the psychosocial impact of the Black Saturday bushfires, the devastating imagery, sights and smells from these bushfires further compounding the sense of loss and brokenness felt by so many who were impacted by, or were involved in the response and recovery to the 2009 bushfires that claimed 173 lives, including 35 children. An important lesson from Black Saturday was the need to plan for mental health support long term following a disaster such as we are seeing now.
First responders: Our first responders are currently playing an incredibly important role in responding to these catastrophic bushfires. They are at the frontlines protecting our communities and doing everything they possibly can to keep people safe. But the toll can be high. On a normal day, our emergency service first responders have higher rates of mental health illness, higher rates of suicidal thinking and planning, and higher suicide rates than the general public. Around every 4.3 weeks a firefighter, paramedic or police officer dies by suicide. So imagine adding the stress of responding to a disaster like the current Australian bushfire crisis into the mix, and for many of our responders it’s a ticking time bomb in regards to their mental health. In regards to protecting their well-being, we need a support system that not only encourages them to “reach out” when they need support, but also “reaches in” and identifies those who are struggling.
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