By Yeeun Lee

Numerous pictures and videos of helpless Koalas are going around the internet, hinting at the extreme damage the current Australian bushfires are causing to its wildlife. In addition to the tremendous environmental damage, the bushfires also have significant consequences for health. However, many are unaware that bushfires are a normal occurrence in Australia and have greatly shaped the nature of the country. In fact, they happen every year in Australia. They are considered to be an “intrinsic part of Australia’s environment” and even the flora and fauna in the country have evolved with fire, resulting in fire-prone native plants and fire-dependent species. What’s more, indigenous Australians have relied on fire as an agricultural tool for decades. The reason why it is so highly discussed now is because this bushfire season is one of the worst – if not the worst – in Australian history. What differentiates bushfires to other wildfires, such as grass fires, is their higher heat output and the fact that they can smolder for days. This makes them harder to put out and catastrophic to life. 

To understand why these bushfires are so hard to put out, it is imperative to understand the factors needed to start one. To start a bushfire, “fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source” are needed. However, how quickly a bushfire spreads depends on temperature, fuel load, moisture, and wind speed. As mentioned before, the current bushfire season has been one of the worst seen in history. It is estimated that over 10 million hectares of land have been affected by the fires. For comparison, the country of England has a land area of 13 million hectares. Thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes or have lost their homes and at least 25 have died. While the entire country has experienced fires this summer, the biggest ones are seen in the eastern and southern parts of the country, which is where most of the population lives and where the city of Sydney is located. While the fires are sometimes started by humans, they are also caused by lightning striking dry vegetation. Additionally, bushfires can lead to thunderstorms, which increases the risk of more lightning strikes, and in return, more bushfires. 

Climate change has arguably played a major role in this bushfire crisis. The droughts in Australia are driven by the positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), which is similar to El Niño in the Western Hemisphere. A positive IOD is “an event where sea surface temperatures are warmer in the western half of the ocean [and] cooler in the east,” which has caused a heatwave in Australia, leading to drier conditions. This same dipole is also responsible for the current floods and prolonged rainy season in eastern Africa. 

As greenhouse emissions increase, extreme climate caused by the dipole is thought to become more common in the future as well. In December 2019, Australia reached its all-time temperature record high twice, 40.9C and 41.9C (105.62F and 107.42F). Not only are the bushfires effected by climate change, they are also contributing to it. An expert on greenhouse emissions at Australia’s national research agency stated that the current fires are producing an equivalent of 8 months of carbon emissions produced by humans. Additionally, NASA began tracking a “plume of smoke” that was about the size of the United States and found that by mid-January, the smoke had circled the globe. As a result of the circumnavigation, New Zealand had hazardous breathing conditions and the skies in South America had changed color.

In Australia, the bushfires have had significant consequences for both human and environmental health. In the past, the bushfires from 1967-2013 cost Australia around $4.7 billion, led to 8,000 injuries, and killed over 400 people. Nonetheless, the costs are even greater as there are indirect health effects from the smoke that don’t manifest in the short-term. Something that can be estimated now is health-related problems due to declining air quality. Since the bushfires began this season, the particulate matter (PM) concentration has increased and thus the air quality has worsened. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PM is the term that refers to particles, both solid and liquid, found in the air. This accounts for dust, dirt, smoke, and other particles that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. If inhaled, they can cause severe health damage. 

These increases in PM are likely to “induce an increase of at least 5.6% in daily all-cause mortality, 4.5% in cardiovascular mortality, and 6.1% in respiratory mortality.” Currently in Sydney, the PM concentrations are four times higher than the WHO’s guidelines.[1] Furthermore, the increasing emergency visits and hospitalizations related to asthma and other respiratory diseases are also likely due to the hazardous effects of bushfires smoke. Research suggests that bushfire smoke can also increase cardiovascular morbidity, adverse birth outcomes, eye irritation, and psychological disorders. Nonetheless, in general, there is insufficient information about the adverse health effects of bushfire smoke and the long-term effects are even more unknown. Thus, more studies on bushfire smoke and air pollution on health are needed. 

The disaster is also likely to affect people’s mental health. In 2009, there was a similar bushfire disaster called Black Saturday in which 173 people were killed. After the event, a study of 1000 local residents was conducted where 15% of respondents reported PTSD symptoms, 13% were depressed, and 25% reported heavy drinking. Many reported being psychologically distressed. Years after the disaster, the majority of the participants showed resilience, meaning that they were able to adapt and thus overcome their trauma and or stress from the event. However, a minority of people in the highly-affected communities continued to report distress, PTSD, and depression.[2] According to the CDC, disasters can especially be distressing for children because they understand the situation less and may not know how to cope yet. This can often lead them to become irritable, anxious, and sad. Thus, as Australia considers what steps to take next, alongside environmental action and other physical health services, it should also consider including mental health services.

In attempts to stop the fires, the Australian government has spent over $2 billion. Every state in Australia has its own emergency operations and almost 4,000 firefighters, 3,000 military personnel, and 400 emergency personnel have been involved. Attempts to curb the fires are taking place both in the air through helicopters and on land by trucks. Other countries including Canada, the United States, and New Zealand have sent firefighters to help. However, the national government has received criticism for its insufficient efforts towards helping fight climate change. Australia remains one of the biggest per-capita greenhouse gas emitters and has failed to reach its reduction targets. 

All in all, the Australian bushfires, while common, have recently become catastrophic to wildlife and to health as well. While there are several contributing factors to the magnitude of a bushfire, climate change is definitely a driving factor of the scale of the current bushfires. This devastating situation serves as a reminder that climate change is happening before our eyes and that it knows no boundaries. A realistic way forward is needed when it comes to climate change and action is needed now from all levels, from the individual and community to governments and institutions.  

References

[1] Yu, P., Xu, R., Abramson, M. J., Li, S., & Guo, Y. (2020). Bushfires in Australia: a serious health emergency under climate change. The Lancet Planetary Health. doi: 10.1016/s2542-5196(19)30267-0

[2] Bryant, R., Waters, E., Gibbs, L., Gallagher, H., Pattison, P., Lusher, D., . . . Forbes, D. (2014). Psychological outcomes following the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 48(7), 634-643.

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