The smoke from autumn burn-offs could make coronavirus symptoms worse. It’s not worth the risk



MomentsForZen/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Don Driscoll, Deakin University; Brian Oliver, University of Technology Sydney; Courtney Alice Waugh, Nord University; Marcel Klaassen, Deakin University, and Veerle L. B. Jaspers, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

It’s hard to forget the thick smoke plumes blanketing Australia’s cities and towns during the black summer. But consecutive days of smoke haze can also come from planned burns to reduce fuel loads, and fires set after logging.

Expanding planned burning is often touted as a way to mitigate the risk of bushfires rising with climate change. But the autumn burn-off season is bad news for the COVID-19 pandemic, as smoke exposure can make us more vulnerable to respiratory illnesses.




Read more:
Logging burns conceal industrial pollution in the name of ‘community safety’


In fact, doctors in the Yarra Valley, Victoria, are campaigning for better air quality monitors. They argue burn-offs are a serious health risk during this pandemic, particularly with asthma inhaler stocks in limited supply.

Yes, planned burns can be useful, but they offer limited protection from bushfires and, right now, they pose an immediate health risk. It’s a reasonable bet that planned burning will do us more harm than good in 2020.

The same can be said of other sources of smoke, including from logging regeneration burns, wood heaters, backyard burn-offs and burning fossil fuels.

How does smoke from bushfires hurt our lungs?

Smoke pollution from the black summer may have killed more than 400 people, and sent 4,000 people to the hospital.

Bushfire smoke includes fine particles – less than 2.5 micrometers in size (one micrometre is a ten-thousanth of a centimetre) – that can reach to the ends of our lungs and enter the bloodstream. They compromise our immune system, weakening our antiviral defences.

Smoke also has a toxic mix of metals and organic chemicals that include known carcinogens. Even short term exposure increases hospital admissions and ambulance call-outs in Australia for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, cardiovascular attacks and other health effects.

It’s not just humans – health impacts from smoke extends to wildlife, with smoke reducing their ability to mount an immune response and increasing their stress.

The ecological effects of smoke can also compromise animal survival, including making it harder for them to forage.

Exacerbating COVID-19

Smoke exposure causes inflammation in the lungs, as does coronavirus infection. But it’s a not a simple equation; they likely act in a synergistic way with complex interactions.

Recent studies have linked worse outcomes of COVID-19 infections with long-term cigarette smoking and air pollution, both of which have similar chemical components to wood smoke.

New research from the USA shows average air pollution with one extra microgram of fine particles per cubic metre is associated with a 15% higher death rate from COVID-19.

In other words, if COVID-19 has a base death rate of about 1 in 100, and fine particles in air pollution span from near one microgram/litre to higher than 12 in major urban centres, then the death rate could more than double to 2.65 per 100 infections.




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


Research into other viral infections shows just two hours of exposure to smoke can make people more susceptible to respiratory infections. But what we’re uncertain about is if short term exposure to smoke would illicit the same dire consequences – dramatically higher death rates – as there appears to be with long-term exposure to air pollutants.

What’s more, men could be more at risk than women. Men find it harder to fight off the flu than women, and prior exposure to wood smoke can make flu symptoms worse in men.

Planned burning is under pressure

The amount and pattern of planned burning is under pressure to change. Some commentators are campaigning for increased planned burning, but others are asking for less, and the Victorian firefighter chief has said it’s no silver bullet.

While planned burns aim to reduce wildfire, it’s not yet clear whether this will ultimately alter the amount of smoke over communities.

On the one hand, planned burns could pump more smoke into the atmosphere than wildfires because
larger areas need to be burned, smoke can build up and hang around for longer, and planned burns could produce more toxic smoke by burning wetter fuels.

On the other hand, planned burns have lower severity and are more patchy than wildfires, so burn less of the vegetation in a given area, potentially producing less smoke.




Read more:
The burn legacy: why the science on hazard reduction is contested


What about protection? Planned burns can make firefighting easier for a few years after fire. But current rates of planned burning give little protection for houses when wildfires are driven by extreme weather.

Planned burns within a few hundred metres of houses can give protection but must occur frequently, such as less than every five years. We shouldn’t expect towns to endure local smoke pollution this often.

A matter of timing

In the context of COVID-19, the seasonal timing of fires is also important.

Flu risk is lowest in the summer months, and COVID-19 might peak in late winter. This means smoke from wildfires in summer may have less impact than smoke from planned burns in autumn and spring.




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


The coming summer is unlikely to bring a repeat of last summer’s fires because so much forest is already burnt.

So, even if COVID-19 spills over into 2021, the compounding smoke risk from wildfires is likely to be lower than smoke from planned burns in autumn and spring.

Not worth it

All things considered, it’s not worth the health risk to conduct planned burns, logging regeneration burns or other burning this year while the pandemic continues to sweep through the country, particularly in areas close to towns such as the Yarra Valley.

Still, whether or not planned burns will change our total exposure to smoke from bushfires, the effects of climate change are definitely bringing more fire and with it more smoke.

This means we can expect to have to deal with interactions between virus risks and smoke risks more often in the future.The Conversation

Don Driscoll, Professor in Terrestrial Ecology, Deakin University; Brian Oliver, Research Leader in Respiratory cellular and molecular biology at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research and Professor, Faculty of Science, University of Technology Sydney; Courtney Alice Waugh, Associate Professor in Immunology and Disease, Nord University; Marcel Klaassen, Alfred Deakin Professor and Chair in Ecology, Deakin University, and Veerle L. B. Jaspers, Professor, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

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

There’s no evidence ‘greenies’ block bushfire hazard reduction but here’s a controlled burn idea worth trying


Locally managed hazard reduction could give communities greater ownership over prevention and leverage local knowledge.
David Bowman, Author provided

Jason Alexandra, RMIT University and David Bowman, University of Tasmania

The current bushfire crisis provides compelling evidence of the dangers posed by extremely dry landscapes and hot, windy conditions.

While there’s no evidence “greenies” precipitated the current crisis by blocking hazard reduction, it is clear that we need to explore new ways to manage fuel loads to reduce the severity of bushfires.

It is worth considering how local, self organised, place-based, community groups could be supported to conduct various types of strategic hazard reduction, including targeted grazing and prescribed or fuel reduction burning.

Using the Landcare model for bushfire hazard reduction

One model we could look to is Landcare, which has enjoyed 30 years of bipartisan support. Funded and supported by governments, local, semi-autonomous, self-directed groups aim to take a sustainable approach to land management through on-ground projects such as habitat restoration and improving biodiversity.

This model could be applied to prescribed or fuel reduction burning, carried out by local “GreenFire” groups. This would involve:

1. Developing and resourcing GreenFire groups.

These would be the equivalent of district Landcare groups, but focused on hazard reduction and fuel management. These groups could be encouraged to learn patch-burning techniques, and other landscape scale management practices, such as creating green firebreaks of non-flammable species.

If well coordinated, these techniques would reduce fire hazards across private and public lands. These groups could be an extension of existing Landcare groups combined with volunteer firefighting services. They would aim to increase capacity for fuel management at the landscape scale and provide opportunities for more people to learn skills and share knowledge, with and from professionals working in government forest and national parks agencies.

These kinds of activities, mostly in the cooler, green seasons would enhance the capacity of communities to prepare for future fires, and increase the capacity of traditional fire fighting to suppress dangerous fires.

2. These groups could work under the mentorship and authorisation of fuel management/reduction officers.

These could be public officers such as district fire officers or senior staff of public land management agencies who have had a long involvement in prescribed burning and fuel management on public lands.

3. In each district, fuel reduction periods could be officially declared.
With this declaration state governments would assume liability for fuel reduction fires, so long as they had the appropriate planning, approvals and resourcing (for example, they were undertaken by trained groups and certified by appropriate officials).

4. Fuel reduction burning should employ Indigenous fire rangers, drawing on Indigenous knowledge and celebrating Indigenous patchwork burning practices.

Involving Indigenous communities in such a program would combine traditional and modern burning practices. Blending cultural and modern burning techniques has proven successful in major savanna burning programs reducing carbon emissions from late season fires in Northern Australia.

Prevention is better than firefighting

Land use planning and management play key roles in shaping exposure to bushfire risks, and are therefore central to disaster mitigation.

Under conditions that favour wildfires, no amount of firefighting effort can protect all lives and property. Victoria’s Black Saturday Royal Commission – a comprehensive inquiry into the fires in which 173 people died, more than 5000 were injured and more than 2,000 houses destroyed – found that under extreme conditions, wildfires overwhelm the capacity of emergency services.

South-eastern Australia has long experience of intense fires, yet our population has spread into the bushlands of coastal hinterlands and urban fringes. This has occurred despite scientists warning for more than 30 years that wildfire risks were intensifying due to climate change.

There are no silver bullet fixes to reduce bushfires hazards. But pragmatic approaches based on extensive research have improved disaster responses, supported calls for stricter planning and building codes and quantified the benefits of strategically reducing fuel loads.

We must try creative new ways to reduce risk

Since the Stretton Royal Commission into the 1939 Black Friday bushfires, more than 16 major inquiries have called for greater use of integrated approaches to land use planning and management to minimise disaster risks.

With climate change increasing bushfire impacts and intensities, we need to build capacity in local communities to manage fire hazard. This requires education, training and adapting policies and landscape management practices to devise plans that suit local conditions.

Countless generations of Indigenous people have effectively managed fire risk through skillful burning. It is time to learn how to burn well and to share the techniques and methods that can enable us live well in our flammable landscape.The Conversation

Jason Alexandra, PhD candidate, RMIT University and David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science, University of Tasmania

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

There’s only one way to make bushfires less powerful: take out the stuff that burns



Hazard reduction burns reduce bushfire fuel loads, but the current approach is not working.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Rod Keenan, University of Melbourne

As monstrous blazes overwhelm Australia’s south-east, the need for a national bushfire policy has never been more urgent. Active land management such as hazard-reduction burning and forest thinning must lie at the core of any such policy.

Done well, controlled burning limits a bushfire’s spread and makes suppression easier, by reducing the amount of flammable material. Clearing or thinning vegetation on roadsides and other areas also helps maintain fuel breaks, allowing firefighters access to forests in an emergency.




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As former fire chiefs recently pointed out, of all factors driving a fire’s severity – temperature, wind speed, topography, fuel moisture and fuel load – fuel load is the only one humans can influence.

The royal commission into Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires identified serious shortcomings in land and fuel management, primarily the domain of the states. Ten years ago I also called for a national approach to bushfires, including vegetation management.

Relatively little has changed since. It is as though Australia suffers collective and institutional amnesia when it comes to bushfire preparedness. But the threat will only escalate. Australia must have a sustained commitment to better land management.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, meeting South Australian firefighters, says bushfire management is a state responsibility.
AAP/Kelly Barnes

The three pillars of dealing with bushfires

Bushfire management comprises three planks: preparation, response and recovery.

Preparation involves managing fuel loads and vegetation, maintaining access to tracks and fire breaks, planning fire response and ensuring sufficient human capacity and resources to respond to worst-case scenarios.

Response involves deploying aircraft, fire trucks and firefighting personnel, and recovery requires social, financial and institutional support.




Read more:
Disaster recovery from Australia’s fires will be a marathon, not a sprint


The federal government mostly focuses on bushfire response and recovery, which now falls under the Department of Home Affairs and the responsible Minister for Natural Disaster and Emergency Management, David Littleproud.

After major fire events in the 2000s, the Commonwealth committed significant resources to response. This included contributing to the cost of more fire-fighting planes and helicopters, and research funding.

A helicopter tackling a bushfire in Victoria’s East Gippsland.
Victorian government

But what about fire preparation?

Prescribed burning is considered a key element of bushfire preparation. While there is some debate over its effect on a fire’s impact, the Victorian bushfire royal commission concluded fuel modification at a sufficient scale can reduce the impact of even high-intensity fires.

Other management actions include thinning dense forest areas, reducing the shrub layer mechanically where burning is not possible and maintaining fire breaks. As the climate changes, we may consider changing the tree species mix.

The newly merged Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is the federal agency with most interest in land management. However other agencies such as the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources share some responsibilities.

Federal funding for land management deals with single issues such as weeds, feral animals, threatened species or water quality. Funding is often piecemeal, doled out to government bodies or community groups with little coordination. As federal programs are implemented, states often withdraw funding.

Former NSW Fire and Rescue commissioner Greg Mullins and other experts have warned fuel reduction burning is “constrained by a shortage of resources in some states and territories”, as well as by warmer, drier weather which reduces the number of days burning can be undertaken.

A hazard reduction operation by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service in the Blue Mountains. Fire experts say such services are underfunded.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

At state level, since the major fires of the 2000s, funding for fire management has increased and coordination between fire response and land management agencies has improved.

However, the focus of the two groups remains divided, which can thwart progress. Fire services prioritise protecting lives and property once fires are going, while forest and land management agencies focus on reducing fire risk, and must consider a wider range of natural and community values.

In a rapidly changing climate, land management requires a long-term adaptive strategy, underpinned by sound analysis and research, supporting laws and policies, with sufficient funding and human resources. Bipartisan political support and leadership continuity is needed to sustain it.

A national approach

State agencies cannot carry the full financial burden for fire preparedness. With fire events happening in almost all states and territories, it is clear we need a national approach.

The federal government collects most tax revenue and should contribute a greater share of the costs of prescribed burning, maintaining access, fire detection, and rapid firefighting response.

Federal spending on land management can be better integrated to engage and protect communities, conserve biodiversity, maintain water quality, manage forest carbon emissions and improve forest resilience to future fires. Recent federal investments in savannah burning in northern Australia are a good example of this.

The Gospers Mountain Fire at Bilpin, NSW.
DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAP

A federal bureau of bushfire and land management could support national policy and coordinate investment, including monitoring and reporting on forest and land condition. State agencies, local authorities and private landowners could continue to provide management to meet national targets.

Commitment to public education is also critical. Many people do not understand the need for appropriate human interventions, such as prescribed burning or thinning, to protect the forests we all enjoy. We must also learn from traditional owners about how to live in our country and manage land with fire.

In December, the federal government initiated an inquiry into the efficacy of vegetation and land management and bushfires. This inquiry needs to be expanded, avoiding the simplified debates of the past, and bring together all parties to identify solutions.




Read more:
Making sense of Australia’s bushfire crisis means asking hard questions – and listening to the answers


As one of the most urbanised countries on Earth, there are few votes to be gained in more spending on rural land management. Hazard reduction is a sometimes risky, labour-intensive measure, and tensions between reducing fuel loads and conserving the environment must be managed.

However after the grief, anger and recriminations from these fires have passed, it’s time for an urgent national rethink – and the Morrison government must lead the way.The Conversation

Rod Keenan, Professor, University of Melbourne

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