It’s set to be the hottest summer in centuries. So how can we protect ourselves from bushfire smoke?

Australia is in for its worst bushfire season yet.

Ideally, the days of coughing and masks would have ended when COVID loosened its grip. But with unseasonal heat waves gripping the country, and blankets of smoke enveloping parts of Australia from as early as September onwards, it looks as though they’re here to stay. The cause of the smoke? Hazard reduction burning ahead of what’s predicted to be the worst bushfire season in Australia.

This comes off the back of climate experts confirming that 2023 is the hottest year in 125,000 years after October was the fifth consecutive month to break global heat records. “When we combine our data with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, then we can say that this is the warmest year for the last 125,000 years,” Samantha Burgess, who is the deputy director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service told Reuters.

This, combined with three years of La Niña, which has accelerated forest growth, has increased the amount of potential fire fuel across the country. New South Wales, in particular, is at risk of fires after three years of wet conditions, Rural Fire Service Inspector Ben Shepherd told the Australian Federal Police. Northern Australia is also an area of concern, as per the Bureau of Meteorology, having experienced monsoonal rainfall in recent years.

Hazard reduction burns are planned and controlled burns carried out when fires aren’t burning to reduce the amount of fuel in fire-prone areas. This is different to backburning, which reduces fuel in the path of already-burning fires. As there has been a lot of rain in the last few years, the authorities have been behind burning schedule and have had to make up for lost time.

“Bushfires and hazard reduction burns are a natural part of life in Australia,” says Dr Henry Gomez from the Hunter Medical Research Institute, who is in research partnership with the Rural Fire Service. “They are incredibly important to reduce fuel loads during bushfires and protect our communities.”

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 19: German tourists Julia Wasmiller (L) and Jessica Pryor take a selfie at Mrs Macquarie's chair, wearing face masks due to heavy smoke on December 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has declared a state of emergency for the next seven days with ongoing dangerous fire conditions and almost 100 bushfires burning across the state. It's the second state of emergency declared in NSW since the start of the bushfire season. (Photo by Jenny Evans/Getty Images)
Smoke can have severe health impacts.

How to protect yourself from bushfire smoke

“People living in Australia are clearly thinking about what may lie ahead, with one in three worried about heatwaves, bushfires and nearly one in two expecting floods and heavy rain over the next 12 months. However, that concern is not translating into active preparation,” said Australian Red Cross Chief of Staff, Penny Harrison.

“We know the better prepared you are, the better your capacity to respond and recover from any emergency. Just thinking about it is not enough.”

Avoidance is the best option, says Dr Gomez. “However, this is clearly not always possible – or even safe.

“As we come into what is predicted to be a severe bushfire season in Australia, it is important that we all update our medications, make sure our health conditions are under control and we have a clear plan.”

According to the Australian government, this is how we can plan:

  • Monitor air quality and health messages, and act accordingly.
  • Avoid vigorous outdoor activity.
  • Spend time indoors, particularly in air-conditioned venues.
  • Avoid indoor sources of air pollution – like cigarettes, candles, and incense sticks.
  • Use air purifiers and face masks. Surgical and cloth masks do not protect against smoke. Instead, opt for P2 and N95 masks which can filter out the fine particles in smoke. 
  • If you have asthma, or a heart or lung condition, consult a doctor.

Tools to help

Knowing how vulnerable our places of residence are when it comes to bushfires is essential to preparing for the risk. There is now an app to help us – the Bushfire Resilience Rating.

This is a world-first rating system that assesses how vulnerable a house is to a bushfire. It then shares of list of ways to make it stronger.

With funding from the federal government, Bushfire Resilience Rating uses information about the house provided by the user, with detailed data about the current climate and local environment.

It was created by the not-for-profit organisation Resilient Building Council in response to the Black Summer bushfires.

In addition, researchers at the University of Newcastle have developed a series of toolkits to aid people in managing their health during periods of bushfire smoke activity.

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