In the wake of bushfires and coronavirus, it’s time we talked about human security



AAP/Lukas Coch

Dennis Altman, La Trobe University

The term “human security” was first adopted by the United Nations Development Program in 1994. We speak far less of it now than we did then. Yet the cataclysmic events of this year should remind us national security is no longer to be thought of in terms of conventional warfare and military expenditure.

Put simply, human security encompasses all those threats to survival that are not military or state-sponsored, and therefore tend to fall beneath the radar of those who imagine security in conventionally “hard” terms.

The recent bushfires and the coronavirus pandemic reveal imminent threats from climate change and global diseases that threaten the very survival of what we take for granted. Yet governments have been far less willing to commit to responding to these issues than to increasing military budgets.

When the concept of human security emerged it was designed to address seven themes: “economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security”. While these terms may seem too broad to be useful, all of them are directly related to the crises now facing the world.

These crises have taken me back to a large research project with several colleagues on rethinking the relevance of human security.

There is a voluminous literature on the meaning and limitations of human security. When he launched the book based on our research, the former foreign minister Gareth Evans defined it as an attempt to link conventional understandings of national security with the needs of human development:

The concept of human security was broad enough to advance both freedom from fear and freedom from want.

In the book, I wrote:

Australia is unlikely to face a military invasion, of the sort we might have experienced in World War II, but its security is threatened by a series of global upheavals around food, water, new epidemics, transnational crime and climate change.

I might now add cybersecurity to that list.

Over the past few years, the Australian government has increased military expenditures to the point where we are now among the top 15 countries ranked on defence spending.

Of course, our expenditure is trivial compared to the United States and China, but there is a powerful lobby pushing to increase it. At the same time, the government has made major cuts to overseas development assistance, is resisting the need to seriously cut emissions and appeared unprepared for the severity of the coronavirus epidemic.

Growing concern about the rise of China and the unpredictability of the United States has meant we ignore the more immediate threats to our security, even as they are looming around us. Most troubling, perhaps, is the government’s dislike of global institutions in a period when we need global cooperation more than ever.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has made several attacks on what he terms an “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy”. In this he appears to be following the lead of US President Donald Trump. Our declining foreign assistance budget is lessening the capacity of countries in our region to respond to health and climate emergencies.

The failure of the United States to provide leadership on either climate change or the coronavirus has emphasised the importance of great powers grasping that even their survival depends upon global action. Arguably the authoritarian Chinese regime, for all its unpleasantness, understands this better than the Trump administration.

It is a common aphorism that generals always fight the last war. Debates about the rise of China and the need to increase our military capabilities overlook the fact the most immediate threats to national security are not conventional military ones.

There are hints of this in Australia’s foreign policy. A statement from Foreign Minister Marise Payne noted:

Australia’s longstanding and ongoing security cooperation with Pacific countries covers defence, law enforcement, transnational crime, climate and disaster resilience, border management and human security.

But the shadow minister, Penny Wong, has argued:

‘Security’ has a much broader connotation than the more threat-based protective and response concepts on which a lot of public policy concentrates.

But these statements stand apart from mainstream debates about “national security”, which remain dominated by concerns about military build-ups and terrorism.

After unparalleled bushfires and coronavirus, the concept of human security gives us the language to reassess the most immediate threats to our survival and the need for global cooperation to respond to them.The Conversation

Dennis Altman, Professorial Fellow in Human Security, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Next time, we’ve got to handle emergency donations better


Debbie Wills, University of Tasmania

As Australia burned over summer, many of us gave generously, donating an extraordinary A$500 million by mid-January.

Charities had to scramble, as did organisations directing us to charities. For its new year’s eve fundraiser the ABC chose the Red Cross.

Weeks later, the New South Wales state MP for Bega, Andrew Constance, a local whose electorate was in the heart of the fires, attacked the Red Cross, and also the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul, arguing not all of the money was getting through:

The money is needed now, not sitting in a Red Cross bank account earning interest so they can map out their next three years and do their marketing.

The Red Cross responded, conceding it was using 10% of donations for administration but noting that it was handing out A$1 million every day.

The confusion and negativity continued, with comedian Celeste Barber seeking legal advice over the fate of A$50 million she raised for the NSW Rural Fire Service.




Read more:
Celebrity concern about bushfires could do more harm than good. To help they need to put boots on the ground


It was too much for the fire service to spend quickly on running expenses and buying and maintaining equipment. And it was prevented by its trust deed from passing it on to other charities.

The fallout suggests we want to be sure our money is being used to help, but we’re not sure that it is.

What can charities and donors do?

My research into the role played by reputation in donations indicates that it is important for charities to define their role clearly.

This includes stating plainly how they are meeting the reporting and other requirements imposed on them by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and educating the public about those requirements.

We need to do our research, think carefully before donating, and watch out for scammers.

It is important to be comfortable with each charity’s mission and objectives. They cannot act outside them without running the risk of being deregistered.

We can search for information on all charities using the commission’s charity search tool www.acnc.gov.au/charity, or for smaller sets of charities using charity ranking sites such as:

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission already does a lot, but given the power, there’s more it could do.

What can Australia’s regulator do?

It could require funds raised for emergencies to be kept in trust, and reported on in more detail at regular intervals through a running statement of distribution of funds.

It could require further standardised reporting, although this would be expensive and charities are already heavily criticised for the percentage of funds used for administration.

It could also set up a one-stop shop for disaster relief.

Brian May and Adam Lambert of Queen perform at the Fire Fight Australia relief concert in Sydney, Sunday February 16, 2020.
Joel Carrett/AAP

The department of foreign affairs set up one for foreign disasters that was first used for the Bangladesh-Myanmar appeal in 2017, bringing together eight Australian charities to create a single website and a single phone number that could be used to direct calls to each individual charity.

There are understandable calls to do the same thing for domestic disasters.

Some charities might not welcome combined appeals, fearing they would reduce their own visibility and impose more hurdles. But the hurdles shouldn’t be impossible to leap. A global organisation has been set up to ensure best practice.




Read more:
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The Advance Global Australian Bushfire Appeal set up by five charities during the bushfires shows what can be done, as does February’s Fire Fight Australia concert.

A government-certified single point of contact, backed up with specific reporting requirements, could provide a level of certainty that the public feel more comfortable with in times of emergency in the future.The Conversation

Debbie Wills, Lecturer in Accounting, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How ‘Earthships’ could make rebuilding safer in bushfire zones



Earthship Ironbark, Author provided

Martin Freney, University of South Australia

Recent disastrous bushfires have rebooted debate about how to (re)build in the Australian bush. Questions are being asked about building standards, whether a fire-proof home is possible, the value of fire bunkers when it’s too late to leave, and if we should even live in the bush any more.

I suggest homes and community buildings in bushfire-prone areas can be made much more fire-resistant, perhaps even fire-proof, by adopting earth-covered, off-grid structures – known as Earthships – as the new standard.




Read more:
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Built for survival

Houses sheltered by earth have a higher chance of survival in a bushfire. This is because earth-based constructions are non-flammable (while topsoil can burn and smoulder, clayey, sandy and gravelly soil does not).

A typical Earthship design has double-glazed windows to the north to let in winter sun, while mounds of earth, pushed up to roof level, protect the south, east and west walls. Taking this a step further, an earth-covered house includes a layer of earth over the roof.

The north-facing double-glazed windows (an essential element of passive solar design) is the only part of the building that needs some other protection.

Bushfire building codes and standards already demand that windows have extra-thick, toughened glass to resist burning debris and intense heat. Double glazing (two layers of glass separated by a small air gap) offers extra protection. In very high-risk areas, bushfire shutters are a requirement.

Although not demanded by building codes, automated sprinklers could be used to spray water on the windows. But automated systems are problematic during a bushfire when power and water supplies are likely to fail.




Read more:
No food, no fuel, no phones: bushfires showed we’re only ever one step from system collapse


Independent water supplies (big water tanks) and pumps (usually petrol or diesel) are often a condition of approval for new homes in fire-prone areas. However, these are difficult to automate because of choke, throttle, ignition and refuelling issues.

Examples around Australia

Enter the Earthship. Invented by American architect Michael Reynolds, thousands have been built all over the world, often by owner-builders.

Earthships, invented by Michael Reynolds, are now found all over the world.

I built Australia’s first council-approved Earthship – Earthship Ironbank – in the bushfire-prone Adelaide hills. Australian examples can be found in all states, including at Ironbank in South Australia, Kinglake in Victoria, East Augusta and Jurien Bay in Western Australia, and Narara and Marulan in New South Wales.

Earthships have an electric pump powered by solar panels and a battery for day-to-day water supply – and to fight fires. Sprinklers can then spray water on any vulnerable areas regardless of grid failures and without needing to deal with the flammable fuel that petrol and diesel pumps require.

The standard Earthship design has another feature that could save lives. Underground pipes called earth-tubes or cooling tubes bring fresh air into the building at a nice temperature (better than outside) due to the heat-exchanging effect of the earth around the pipes. When wet fabric is placed over the end of the pipes, these can filter out bushfire smoke.

Earth-covered homes are very air-tight, which combined with the earth-tubes helps keep out smoke and reduce asphyxiation risks.

Another defence mechanism is the “greenhouse”, a sunroom and corridor space on the sunny north side used for passive heating and cooling, treating wastewater and growing food. Yet another layer of double glazing isolates the greenhouse from the living spaces behind it. Adding indoor sprinklers (commonplace in commercial buildings) to the greenhouse could create a “wet buffer zone” and stop embers blowing into living areas where flammable furnishings are a hazard.

An iconic Earthship feature is the tyres used to form the exterior earth walls. While empty tyres are highly flammable, in this design they are not. The tyres are filled with compacted earth and protected by a layer of earth many metres thick (inside walls are rendered). There is already evidence of their fire-resistant nature.




Read more:
Australian building codes don’t expect houses to be fire-proof – and that’s by design


Safer for the planet too

My PhD research focused on the energy efficiency and environmental footprint of the Earthship, comparing it to other construction systems and designs.

A look at the author’s Earthship Ironbark.

Earth is a low-cost, readily available material. It takes very little energy to dig it up, needs no processing and minimal (if any) transport. It is difficult to think of a more sustainable, inexpensive and non-flammable material.

I found off-grid homes minimise their eco-footprint by kicking three very dirty habits: the power, water and sewage grids. “Earthy” construction methods, such as Earthship, rammed earth, mudbrick and strawbale, also have much lower environmental impacts.

Earth-covered buildings are renowned for their energy efficiency. Earth insulates and has “thermal mass”, an architectural term for dense materials (e.g. concrete, brick, rammed earth, water). Thermal mass evens out temperature changes by absorbing heat when it is too hot inside and releasing heat when it is too cold inside. This means minimal heating and cooling bills.

There are a few “tricks” to getting council approval. Hire an experienced structural engineer and use a private certifier or surveyor for building rules consent as they are better equipped to certify compliance with the National Construction Code. The one aspect of the Earthship I couldn’t get approved was an indoor greywater garden and toilet-flushing system.




Read more:
Sustainable cities? Australia’s building and planning rules stand in the way of getting there


Parts of the roof are earth-covered with fire-fighting sprinklers on the roof and windows. If I was building again I’d prioritise bushfire resilience by making it fully earth-covered with fire shutters, sprinklers and a safe room.

Further study is needed to scientifically validate my proposal here. However, we already have some evidence that Earthships, with a few minor design changes, might be the most sustainable, liveable, economical, fire-resistant buildings ever conceived of.The Conversation

Martin Freney, Lecturer in Industrial and Sustainable Design, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This time is different: Australia’s tourist numbers may take years to recover


John Quiggin, The University of Queensland

Australia’s catastrophic bushfire season has done immense damage to Australia’s tourist industry. Then, just as heavy rain began to bring the situation under control, came the coronavirus outbreak in China – now the top source of international visitors to Australia. Tourism from China, already greatly reduced, ended with the ban on non-citizens travelling from China.




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We depend so much more on Chinese travellers now. That makes the impact of this coronavirus novel


The general assumption has been that, once the immediate crises are over, Australia’s tourist numbers will bounce back.

Optimists point to examples such as Japan following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people, resulted in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and forced more than 500,000 people to evacuate.

Tourism to Japan took a hit. International visits in 2011 fell 28%, to 6.2 million from 8.6 million in 2010. By the end of 2012, however, numbers were back to more than 8.3 million. Tourism to the devastated Fukushima region took a little longer to bounce back, but by fiscal 2015 had recovered to nearly 90% of numbers in fiscal 2010.

The same was true of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that wreaked catastrophic damage and killed an estimated 230,000 people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and other countries in the Indian Ocean region.

Terrorist attacks in major cities have a similar immediate impact on travel, but this soon dissipates.

There are, however, good reasons to think this time is different.

Unprecedented duration

First, most disasters of this kind have been single-day events. Relief efforts and damage assessments can dominate the news for a week or more, but other events soon take their place.

By contrast, Australia’s bushfire emergency ran for months, generating extensive worldwide coverage for much of this time. The COVID-19 outbreak epidemic is still front-page news and will probably remain so until it has been contained.

Second, the typical shock of this kind has no long-term effect on perceptions of the country where it takes place. The vulnerability of the Pacific Rim to earthquakes and tsunamis has long been known, and the occurrence of an earthquake in Japan does not make another one any more likely (if anything the opposite).

Similarly, terrorist attacks can and do happen anywhere. While there are countries where terrorism risks discourage most tourists – Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Syria being the top four – in most of the world no possible destination is more or less at risk than any other, and the risk remains even if you stay at home.

By contrast, the bushfire cataclysm has been unprecedented in terms of duration and the areas in southeast Australia destroyed. Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra were all cloaked in smoke.

The image of Australia as a clean, green destination for outdoor fun – promoted in an advertising campaign in Britain featuring Kylie Minogue even as the disaster raged – has been replaced by burnt-out landscapes where the next fire may be even worse than the last.




Read more:
Celebrity concern about bushfires could do more harm than good. To help they need to put boots on the ground


The Australian government’s handling of the issue has added to negative perceptions. International coverage of the bushfires has repeatedly mentioned the “coal-loving” Australian government’s failure to deal with the fact its fossil fuel exports contribute to the conditions that make catastrophic fires more likely.

Washington Post columnist David Ickling put it like this:

It’s a rude dose of reality for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a former tourism-promotion bureaucrat whose lackadaisical, image-obsessed initial response to the fires has caused him to be lampooned on social media as #scottyfrommarketing.

And yet a generation before Morrison came on the scene, Australia was already lying to itself and the world about its role in the climate change that has fuelled this disaster. If any goodness can sprout from the devastation of these fires, it will start with a more honest reckoning about how successive governments have sold off Australia’s future for a handful of coal.

Finally, the bushfires affected as many tourists as locals. The fires in southern New South Wales and eastern Victoria in particular trapped thousands of tourists taking Christmas-New Year holidays in normally pleasant seaside resorts.

This is not usually the case with disasters, with some exceptions. Most of the 202 people killed in the 2002 Bali bombings were tourists, for example, as were the majority of more than 4,000 people killed in Thailand by the Boxing Day tsunami.




Read more:
In fact, there’s plenty we can do to make future fires less likely


Memories will fade over time, at least until they are rekindled by another disaster. But we should not expect this to happen quickly. The damage the bushfire catastrophe has caused to Australia’s position in the international tourism market is likely to last for years to come.The Conversation

John Quiggin, Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nearly 80% of Australians affected in some way by the bushfires, new survey shows



James Gourley/AAP

Nicholas Biddle, Australian National University; Ben Edwards, Australian National University; Diane Herz, Australian National University, and Toni Makkai, Australian National University

Last month, the Australian National University contracted with the Social Research Centre (SRC) to survey more than 3,000 Australian adults about their experiences and attitudes related to the bushfires.

The study is the first of its kind to gauge how people were affected by the crisis and how it changed their views on a range of subjects, from climate change to the government response.

More than half of Australians felt anxiety

Our research shows the vast majority of Australians were touched in some way by the fires. We asked about eight different forms of impact, from lost property to disrupted holiday plans to difficulty breathing from the smoke.



About 14.4% of our respondents experienced direct exposure to the fires, either through their property damage or evacuations.

We can extrapolate further by looking at population estimates from the ABS and the number of visitors to areas impacted by the bushfires from the National Visitors Survey to estimate the total number of people directly affected at around 3 million.

And 77.8% of our respondents reported indirect exposure to the fires, such as having a friend or family member with damaged or threatened property, having travel or holiday plans disrupted, being exposed to the physical effects of smoke or feeling anxious or worried about the fires.




Read more:
Bushfires won’t change climate policy overnight. But Morrison can shift the Coalition without losing face


Breaking the data down by individual category, the severity of the public health challenges becomes more clear.

Nearly six in 10 respondents (57%) said they were physically affected by the smoke, while 53.6% said they felt anxious or worried about the fires.

Confidence in the government declined

The long-running Australian Election Study has shown that confidence in the federal government has declined substantially in the past few decades.

Crises have the potential to restore some of this trust if dealt with effectively and transparently. However, the government’s handling of the recent bushfire crisis seems to have had the opposite effect.

Confidence in the federal government declined by 10.9 percentage points from 38.2% in our survey in October 2019 to 27.3% by January 2020.

Confidence in other institutions, meanwhile, was quite stable over the four-month period, and higher than for the federal government. Rural fire-fighting services had the highest level of public trust in our survey at 92.5%.



We also found a significant decline in the percentage of people who said they would vote for the Coalition if an election was held that day. This dropped from 40.4% in October 2019 to just 34.8% in January 2020 – nearly even with those who said they would vote for Labor in January (33.4%).

Significant increase in concern over global warming

We also tracked significant changes in people’s attitudes towards the environment.

For instance, 49.7% of people reported the environment as one of the top two issues facing Australia in January 2020, compared to 41.5% of respondents in October 2019.

Another interesting finding: 10.2% reported fires, natural disasters or extreme weather as the most or second-most important issue facing Australians, up from nearly nonexistent in October 2019.




Read more:
After the fires, a reason for optimism: our civic engagement has never been higher


Our findings showed consistently higher concern among Australians when it comes to specific environmental issues. Comparing responses from our January 2020 survey and a 2008 ANUpoll, we saw two large increases in concern for loss of native vegetation, animal species or biodiversity (13 percentage points) and drought and drying (nine percentage points).



There was an even larger increase in the proportion of people who believe global warming or climate change will impact their lives.

Nearly three-quarters (72.3%) of respondents said global warming was a very serious or fairly serious threat, a substantial increase from the 56% who said so in 2008.

The majority of those living in capital cities said they felt global warming was a very serious problem (62%) or a threat (74.9%). Perhaps even more surprising, however, was the fact these views were shared by people in non-capital cities (52% said it was very serious, 65.5% said it was a threat).



Support for new coal mines has also declined sharply over the past eight months. In our January survey, 37% of respondents said the government should allow the opening of new coal mines, down from 45.3% in an ANU survey from June 2019.

While being exposed to the bushfires appears to have made people more aware of environmental issues, the drop in support for new coal mines does not appear to have been driven by the crisis itself. Rather, it appears to be consistent across the population, with the biggest decline occurring among those who voted for the Coalition in the 2019 federal election (57.5% supported new mines in January 2020, down from 71.8% in June 2019).

There is still much work to be done to fully understand people’s attitudes towards climate change and how this correlates with natural disasters like bushfires.

But the data in our survey provide opportunities for future research and new insights and will be made available through the Australian Data Archive. Future surveys could test for changes in people’s attitudes taking into account different variables and track how those attitudes change over time.The Conversation

Nicholas Biddle, Professor of Economics and Public Policy, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University; Ben Edwards, Associate Professor, Child and Youth Development and Longitudinal Studies, Australian National University; Diane Herz, CEO, Social Research Centre, Australian National University, and Toni Makkai, Emeritus Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How does bushfire smoke affect our health? 6 things you need to know


Phoebe Roth, The Conversation

As bushfires continue to burn around Australia, smoke has continued to blanket major cities and regional areas.

Smoke emissions from the Australian bushfires from December 18, 2019 to January 17, 2020.

Sydney and Canberra have now suffered on and off for months. While the smoke has affected Melbourne to a lesser extent, today Melbourne and large parts of country Victoria are hazy again.

On many days the smoke has meant air quality in these areas has far exceeded safe levels.



But what do these “hazardous” levels of air pollution actually mean for our health? Over this bushfire season, we’ve asked several experts to answer this question. Here we summarise The Conversation’s essential reading on bushfire smoke.

1. What’s in bushfire smoke?

Let’s take a look at what kind of chemicals are contained in bushfire smoke to make it dangerous.

Gabriel da Silva, who researches the chemistry of air pollution, explained smoke contains gases, most notably carbon dioxide (CO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO). It also contains traces of many other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and nitrogen dioxide (NO₂). These gases can be toxic to the environment and human health.

While there’s no safe level of air pollution, bushfire smoke is particularly hazardous because of the presence of tiny particles, or particulate matter (PM).

This is both soot that builds up during combustion, and ash that breaks down from the remnants of burnt fuel. These particles can penetrate deep into our lungs and make their way into our bloodstream, potentially impacting almost every bodily system.

The PM we’re most concerned about are PM2.5 – particles less than 2.5 micrometres in size. The concentration of PM2.5 in the air is often the marker we use to assess air quality.




Read more:
Bushfire smoke is everywhere in our cities. Here’s exactly what you are inhaling



Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

2. It’s hard to breathe

You might have experienced an irritated throat and coughing from the bushfire smoke. This is because of the particles (the tiny ones and slightly larger ones) irritating the thin lining of your respiratory tract, called the mucous membrane. This can happen in otherwise healthy people.

But as Brian Oliver wrote, people with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma are at risk of more severe breathing difficulties in the bushfire smoke.

In periods of smoke haze, people have called the ambulance more frequently for breathing difficulties, and larger numbers than usual have presented to hospital emergency departments with breathing problems.




Read more:
How does poor air quality from bushfire smoke affect our health?


Some people suffering in the smoke might have undiagnosed asthma. Christine Jenkins explained signs to look out for include chest tightness and wheezing in response to exposure to irritants such as smoke, dusts, aerosol sprays and fumes.

If you think you may have asthma, to avoid any long-term damage, it’s important to see a doctor to have it diagnosed and treated.




Read more:
I’m struggling to breathe with all the bushfire smoke – could I have undiagnosed asthma?


People with other pre-existing health issues, such as heart conditions – often older people – are also at higher risk of illness and death when the air quality is poor. One study reported a 5% increase in deaths during bushfire smoke events in Sydney from 1994 to 2007, such as from heart attacks.

3. My eyes are irritated

When smoke comes into contact with our eyes, the fumes and small particles dissolve into our tears and coat the eye’s surface. In some people, this can trigger inflammation, and therefore irritation.

Katrina Schmid and Isabelle Jalbert explained studies in countries with routinely high levels of air pollution report higher levels of chronic dry eye.

While dry eye is a result of damage to the surface of the eyes, it’s also possible pollutants entering the blood stream after we breathe them in could affect the blood supply to the eye. This in turn could damage the fine vessels within the eye itself.

But we need more research into the long-term effects of prolonged poor air quality on our eyes, particularly from bushfire smoke.

Many people have found the bushfire smoke has irritated their eyes.
From shutterstock.com

If your eyes are irritated, flush them as often as you can, with over-the-counter lubricant eye drops if you have some on hand. If not, use sterile saline solution or clean bottled water. You can also place a cool face washer over your closed lids.

Don’t rub your eyes, as this could make the irritation worse, and avoid wearing contact lenses.




Read more:
Bushfire smoke is bad for your eyes, too. Here’s how you can protect them


4. I’m pregnant. Can the smoke harm my baby?

Pregnant women should take extra care to avoid exposure to bushfire smoke where possible.
From shutterstock.com

Pregnant women breathe at an increased rate, and their hearts need to work harder than those of non-pregnant people to transport oxygen to the fetus. This makes them particularly vulnerable to the effects of air pollution, including bushfire smoke.

As Sarah Robertson and Louise Hull wrote, research shows prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke increases the risk of pregnancy complications including high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, low birth weight and premature birth (before 37 weeks).

There’s also some evidence air pollution compromises fertility by reducing ovarian reserve (the number of eggs in the ovary) and affecting sperm number and movement.




Read more:
Pregnant women should take extra care to minimise their exposure to bushfire smoke


5. Long-term effects

Given this is a new phenomenon, we don’t know exactly what prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke could mean for future health.

But to get an idea, we can look at the health of populations that routinely experience high levels of air pollution. Brian Oliver pulled some of this data together.

He says air pollution is associated with an increased risk of several cancers, and chronic health conditions like respiratory and heart disease. The World Health Organisation estimates ambient air pollution contributes to 4.2 million premature deaths around the world every year.

A recent study in China reported long-term exposure to a high concentration of PM2.5 is associated with an increased risk of stroke.

While this can give us an indication, there are a couple of reasons we can’t rely too heavily on these findings. First, taking data from one type of airborne pollution and applying it to different pollutants is complex, as the chemical makeup is likely to differ between pollutants. And second, we are not (yet) looking at the long-term exposure to air pollution seen in countries like China.




Read more:
We know bushfire smoke affects our health, but the long-term consequences are hazy


6. How can we protect ourselves?

The acute effects of exposure to bushfire smoke are evident, and though we won’t know the long-term effects for some time, there’s a clear need to protect ourselves.

According to Lidia Morawska, staying inside provides some protection against bushfire smoke, but the degree of protection depends on the type of building and importantly, its ventilation.

One option to improve the quality of indoor air is to use air purifiers. Look out for air purifiers with a HEPA filter – these are the most efficient.

Consider staying inside where possible on days where the air quality is very poor, particularly if you have a pre-existing condition or you’re pregnant.

As for face masks, regular fabric masks are ineffective as they allow the small particles to get through. P2/N95 masks are the most effective, but these need to be fitted correctly.

Of course, these are emergency measures that don’t in themselves represent a solution. As Morawska says, the only real way forward is to address the climate crisis urgently and decisively.




Read more:
From face masks to air purifiers: what actually works to protect us from bushfire smoke?


The Conversation


Phoebe Roth, Deputy Editor, Health+Medicine, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

No food, no fuel, no phones: bushfires showed we’re only ever one step from system collapse



Australian Navy

Anthony Richardson, RMIT University

This summer’s bushfires were not just devastating events in themselves. More broadly, they highlighted the immense vulnerability of the systems which make our contemporary lives possible.

The fires cut road access, which meant towns ran out of fuel and fell low on food. Power to towns was cut and mobile phone services stopped working. So too did the ATMs and EFTPOS services the economy needs to keep running.

In a modern, wealthy nation such as Australia, how could this happen?

In answering this question, it’s helpful to adopt “systems thinking”. This approach views problems as part of an overall system, where each part relates to each other.

In other words, we need to look at the big picture.

Through a systems lens

Systems are everywhere, from the coral ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef to the vast technology networks of global financial markets. In a human sense, social systems range from the small, such as a family, to large organisations or the national or global population.

The systems I mentioned just now are “complex” systems. This means they are connected to other systems in many ways. It also means a change in one part of the system, such as a bushfire in a landscape, can set off unpredicted changes in connected systems – be they political, technological, economic or social.




Read more:
Australia needs a national fire inquiry – these are the 3 key areas it should deliver in


All complex systems have three things in common:

  1. they need a constant supply of energy to maintain their functioning

  2. they are interconnected across a range of scales, from the personal and local to the global and beyond

  3. they are fragile when they have no “redundancy”, or Plan B.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange – part of the complex system of global financial markets.
Justin Lane/EPA

The case of East Gippsland

To better understand a complex system collapse, let’s examine what happened in Victoria’s East Gippsland region, particularly the coastal town of Mallacoota, during the recent fires.

This case demonstrates how one trigger (in this case, a bushfire) may start a cascade of events, but the intrinsic fragility of the system enables total collapse.

Transport-wise, neither East Gippsland nor Mallacoota itself are physically well connected. Fires cut both the only transport connection to East Gippsland, the Princes Highway, and the lone road out of Mallacoota.




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Smoke haze prevented air transport. This meant the only way out was by sea, in the form of intervention by the Australian Navy.

Second, there were no reserves of food, fuel, water, medical supplies or communications at hand when the fires had passed. Supplies ran so low there were reports of a looming “humanitarian crisis”.

These shortages are no surprise. In Australia, as in most developed countries, food and fuel distribution systems run on a “just in time” model. This approach, originally developed by Japanese car manufacturer Toyota, involves organising supply networks so materials are ordered and received when they are needed.

Such systems remove the need to store excess goods in warehouses, and are undoubtedly efficient. But they are also extremely fragile because there is no redundancy in the system – no Plan B.

Implications for Australia

Australia as a whole is, in many ways, just as fragile as Mallacoota.

We import 90% of our oil – a figure expected to rise to 100% by 2030. Much of that fuel passes through the Straits of Hormuz and then through the Indonesian archipelago. We have few alternative routes.




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Nor do we maintain sufficient back-up reserves of fuel. Australia is the only International Energy Agency (IEA) member that does not meet the obligation to keep 90 days of fuel supplies in reserve.

As East Gippsland and Mallacoota have shown, many other connected systems, such as food distribution networks, are critically dependent on this fragile fuel supply.

A close shave

On January 3 this year – the very day HMAS Choules evacuated people from Mallacoota – the US killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by drone strike.

If Iran had responded by disrupting the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, throwing global oil supply into turmoil, Australia may have faced nationwide fuel shortages at the height of the bushfire crisis.

Late last year Australia reportedly had 18 days of petrol, 22 days of diesel and 23 days of jet fuel in reserve.

A global fuel crisis was avoided only due to restraint by both the US and Iran. Australia might not be so lucky next time.

Activists calling for de-escalation in the conflict between the US and Iran in January.
MARK R. CRISTINO/EPA

The need for reserves

Our communities, especially in bushfire-prone areas, need more redundancy to make them resilient to disasters. This might mean towns storing water, non-perishable food, blankets, medical supplies, a generator, a satellite phone and possibly fuel, in protected locations.

More broadly, Australia needs a national fuel reserve. This should be in line with the IEA’s 90-day obligations. In December last year, Australia reportedly had just 54 days’ worth of reserves.

The federal government has recently looked to bolster reserves through possible deals with the US and Holland. But overseas supplies will not be very helpful in an immediate crisis.

The implications of the bushfire crisis are clear. At a national and individual level, we must improve the resilience of the systems that make our daily life possible.The Conversation

Anthony Richardson, Tutor and Researcher, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Out of control, contained, safe? Here’s what each bushfire status actually means



We’re used to images of firefighters with hoses, but more of the firefighting effort goes to clearing vegetation than spraying with water.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Thomas Duff, University of Melbourne

In this record-breaking bushfire season, notifications from emergency managers have become a familiar feature of Australian life. Terms like “out of control” and “contained” are regularly heard as descriptions of the status of fires, but what do they actually mean?

These terms vary slightly between Australian states and territory, but as similar firefighting strategies are used Australia-wide, the meanings are comparable.

The status of a fire is a description of the stage of the firefighting effort, not the nature of the fire or its likelihood of being a threat. This means that to understand what actions to take when an active fire is nearby, it’s important to follow the advice of your local fire and emergency information sources.




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‘Going’ or ‘out of control’

A fire described as “going” or “out of control” is one where parts of its perimeter are burning and have the potential to spread into unburnt areas.

The perimeter is the focus as it is where unburnt fine fuels (consisting of the litter on the forest floor, shrubs and bark) are being ignited and burning rapidly. The flames of these subside quickly, so the majority of a fire’s interior consists of blackened area where only heavy fuels such as logs and branches continue to burn.

A fire will be given the status “going” when it is first detected or reported to emergency authorities. The status may also be used for fires that were controlled and subsequently breakaway (escape control).

“Going” fires will typically be the subject of concentrated firefighting effort to prevent growth and minimise the impacts to things of value (i.e. lives, property, infrastructure and ecosystem services). However the term is inclusive of all fires that are able to spread, so encompasses everything from shrubs burning under a tree hit by lighting to intense firestorms.

Contained or “being controlled’

A “contained” fire is one with a complete containment line around its perimeter. “Being controlled” will have a complete or near-complete containment line. Containment lines (also called control lines or firelines) are the main way to stop bushfires spreading.

While our images of firefighters involve hoses spraying water against the flames, water is, in fact, inefficient because of the vast amounts needed to douse the large amounts of burning vegetation and the difficulty of maintaining supply in rugged terrain.

Instead, to stop fires spreading, firefighters create containment lines where all fuels are removed in bands adjacent to the fire’s perimeter. This prevents the fire reaching unburnt vegetation, starving the flames of new material to burn.

So how are containment lines created? Typically, with heavy machinery (often bulldozers), which scrape away all burnable material around the edge of the fire so nothing but mineral soil remains. In rugged terrain, this may be done by hand, by specialist crews using tools such as rakehoes and chainsaws.

Where there are existing areas of low fuel in the landscape, such as roads, bodies of water or previously burnt areas, firefighters may also include these as part of their containment strategy.

The containment line is built next to the burning fire edge, so the more intense or erratic a fire is, the more difficult and dangerous it is for crews to work.




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It’s not safe to construct a line where fires are spreading rapidly, producing many embers, behaving erratically, have deep flames or are exhibiting firestorm-type behaviours (where the fire is so intense it can generate extreme winds and even lightning).

At such times firefighters will either move to parts of the fire where behaviour is less intense (typically where the wind is pushing the flames away from unburnt fuel), apply indirect firefighting methods such as backburning (burning areas in front of the advancing fire) or retreat and focus on protecting life and property.

The exceptionally hot, dry and windy conditions of the 2019/20 fire season have resulted in many rapidly expanding bushfires that have overwhelmed the capacity of firefighters to build containment lines.

As a fire is being contained, crews will be assigned to patrol the already constructed parts of the line to prevent escapes. The burning-out of unburnt fuels within the containment lines may be done to reduce the chance this ignites and causes issues at a future date.

Under control, or ‘patrol’

A fire that’s “under control” has a full containment line around it, and there has been a degree of consolidation so fire escaping outside the lines is unlikely.

This consolidation is called “mopping up” or “blacking out”, and consists of crews working along the edge of the fire to extinguish or stabilise any burning material in the fire area within a set distance of the line.

Fire elevates the risk of trees falling, so at this stage there may also be work to identify and treat dangerous trees.

After line consolidation is complete, routine patrols to prevent escapes will continue for days to weeks until the fire is deemed safe.




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Safe

The final status applied to bushfires is “safe”. This is where deemed that no sources of ignition within containment lines have the potential to cause escapes.

Once a fire is declared safe, it’s assumed no longer necessary to maintain patrols and the fire can be left alone.

After the fire season it’s common for management agencies to rehabilitate the containment lines, to restore the site to its prior condition to protect biodiversity values and water quality.

The status of a fire can change – even fires thought to be safe occasionally break away when hot and windy weather returns. Regardless of whether there are known fires in your area, it is important to have a bushfire survival plan and to pay attention to the advice of your local fire and emergency information sourcesThe Conversation

Thomas Duff, Postdoctoral Fellow, Forest and Ecosystem Science, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.