The unprecedented devastation caused by the Australian 2019/20 summer bushfires are expected to have ongoing effects on the physical and mental health of people from affected communities not just in the immediate future, but for years and possibly decades to come. The tragic widespread loss will also continue to impact our now changed environment, landscape and wildlife, long after the news coverage, social media posts and donations slow down.
Fires this season have burned an estimated 18.6 million hectares.
Fires this season have destroyed over 5,900 buildings including approximately 2,683 homes.
Fires this season have seen at least 34 people lose their lives.
Fires this season are estimated to have killed over 1 billion animals.
Fires continue to burn.
As many affected areas of Australia welcome a long-awaited dose of rainfall over the coming days, the lasting impact of the fires on our country’s environment, health and mental health is yet to be seen. Recovery from the devastation caused by Australia’s summer bushfires will be a mammoth task for those who have been directly affected, the communities of those affected, the Australian people as a whole, the Australian landscape and the Australian Government by way of relief and preparation for next time.
With two months still remaining in the Australian bushfire season, the impact of the fires on our environment are already been seen and felt, loud and clear.
- Carbon dioxide emissions
At no other time in history have we as humans been so focused on our carbon footprint and the results of global climate change. Yet the smoke from the Australian bushfires is travelling around the planet, injecting aerosols and increasing carbon dioxide emissions (one of the greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change) into the upper atmosphere at some of the highest levels ever recorded according to NASA satellites.
The fires have already released enough carbon dioxide (An estimated 400 million tons) to rival Australia’s annual human-caused emissions (roughly 540 million emitted tons) last year.
- Biodiversity Loss
With an estimated loss of over 1 Billion animals in the fires so far, and over 18 million hectares of land destroyed, scientists fear an immediate loss of biodiversity and habitat for many animals who’s only home is Australia.
Habitat features needed by wildlife including log hollows, nectar-bearing shrubs and a deep ground layer of fallen leaves have not only been destroyed in a matter of weeks, but may not redevelop for decades. And for those animals that were lucky enough to survive, they have lost their food sources, making the extent of this issue unknown.
But for now, the bushfires are said to have pushed at least 20 threatened Australian species closer to extinction.
- Water Supply & Quality Threat
While it is only natural to rejoice over falling rain after what we have just witnessed and endured, too much rain could result in major issues for Australia’s water quality and supplies. As rain falls and travels, it collects ash, soot and burnt vegetation with nothing to filter it from entering our catchments, streams, dams and beaches. This clogged runoff ultimately threatens our water quality and strangles fish and other marine life.
Warragamba Dam is of particular concern. With its supplies sitting at already less than half of its capacity, the effects of heavy rain falling on the catchment area (of which 80-90% has burned) will see massive amounts of sooty material filling its waters which may lead to blooms of cyanobacteria, further exacerbating our already low water supplies.
PHYSICAL HEALTH IMPACT
- Short Term
Air quality across Australia has suffered significantly as a result of our fire-ravaged country. With Canberra and Melbourne recording the worst air quality in the world in the past few days, and Sydney enduring hazardous air quality levels throughout summer, heightened anxiety levels regarding health issues related to bushfire smoke have also developed across the country.
The majority of air pollution-related health impacts are due to ‘fine particulate matter’; particles and droplets that are less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5) which enables them to deposit toxic components deep in the lungs.
While poor air quality can be harmful to everyone, vulnerable groups of people including children under 14, people over 65, pregnant women and those with pre-existing medical conditions including asthma and other respiratory conditions, cardiac and cardiovascular conditions and diabetes are encouraged to limit their exposure to the smoke as much as possible.
Healthy people tend to tolerate exposure to bushfire smoke better than more vulnerable people, although it can still cause itchy or burning eyes, throat irritation, runny nose and some coughing. However, these usually pass once the person is no longer exposed to the smoke.
- Long Term
While the short-term effects of exposure to low air quality or bushfire smoke are clear, less is known about the long-term effects of exposure.
By drawing on data from highly polluted regions such as those in Asia where people are exposed to long-term high levels of air pollution, negative effects on health have been seen with increased risks of several cancers and chronic health conditions including heart disease and respiratory conditions.
A recent study in China reported long-term exposure to high concentrations of ultrafine particles called PM2.5 (which we find in bushfire smoke) is linked to an increased risk of stroke. A smaller study exposed a group of people to 4 x 15 minute periods of wood smoke (which contains over 200 chemicals) over a 2 hour period, and saw each participant experience increased levels of neutrophils, a type of aggressive white blood cell both in their lungs and circulation.
These short-term studies show that bushfire smoke is toxic, and despite the human body’s remarkable capacity to cope with air pollution, it’s this toxicity which is likely to cause long-term effects.
MENTAL HEALTH IMPACT
Mental health effects from bushfires are common, as they typically are when a population experiences significant trauma. These effects can range from short-term anxiety and panic to longer-term depression and PTSD.
After the fires stop burning, people will need to continue paying their mortgages, even on houses that are uninhabitable. Homelessness and bankruptcy become very real threats, insurance claims are made but not always paid, and relationships are thrown under enormous stress overnight.
And while it is common to see resilience in the immediate after events of bushfires, five years following the Black Saturday fires of 2009, rates of mental illness were still elevated. Approximately 1 in 5 people in highly effected communities experienced persistent post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and psychological distress.
The Australian Government has just committed $76 million for distress counselling and mental health support for individuals, families and communities affected by the recent bushfires, but only time will tell if this financial contribution will have any effect on the psychological implications of this shocking summer of disaster.
Preparedness for the future
Last year, many groups including former fire chiefs, fire scientists and meteorological chiefs, tried to communicate the deep urgency for action needed by the government in the lead-up to a summer predicted to be our most challenging ever (Yin 2020). However, despite the warnings and consciousness about climate change and global warming, Australia was hopelessly underprepared for what it has just faced and may continue to face over the coming months.
But at the end of this bushfire season, when the ash settles and those effected begin to piece together their lives, we must all accept the science that is global warming and the challenge it has put before us. We must choose to act and take the necessary measures to tackle climate change to prevent this fire-ravaged summer becoming our new normal.