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We all know that smoking kills and, on that basis, we’ve spent years successfully reducing smoking rates but on Thursday morning all Sydneysiders were sharing one gigantic ciggie. For on that morning, Sydney’s air quality was languishing just behind that of Lahore and Dubai, registering us as the third most polluted city in the world.
This pollution led to warnings to stay indoors and some doctors reporting an increase in people presenting to emergency department across Sydney with asthma attacks and breathing difficulties. It was all due to the bushfire smoke resulting from the prescribed burns undertaken by the Rural Fire Service (RFS) as it prepares for, what experts say, will be a horror fire season in Australia’s south-east this summer.
Smoky SydneyCredit: Sydney Morning Herald
But is the RFS actually making things worse while it subjects us to this deadly pollution?
I’m an anaesthetist, so I have a special interest in cardiovascular and respiratory health. These are the physiological systems of your body on which I’m focused while you are under my care. So smoke pollution that causes disease in these systems catches my attention and causes me concern.
The problem with bushfire smoke is the small particle pollution it contains. These particles cause inflammation in your lungs and blood vessels which leads to cellular damage. The smaller the particle, the deeper into your lungs it travels and the more damage it does. If you are an older person with pre-existing lung or heart disease, this smoke pollution can kill you. And, no, I’m not exaggerating. A report in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2016 showed that there were 14 deaths in Sydney caused by the prescribed burn smoke in May of that year and a more recent University of Sydney review of the 2019-2020 summer Sydney bushfire pollution showed that exposure to this smoke increased your risk of death if you were aged over 65 years at the time.
It is not only the death and disease associated with the prescribed burns that is a problem. There is also the evidence published by Curtin University Associate Professor Philip Zylstra that prescribed burns are ineffective and actually make wildfires worse. This is because the best protection against wildfire is a mature forest, one that hasn’t burnt for a long time. The secret to their fire resistance is the thinning of the understory vegetation that occurs over time, and it is this understory that drives the intensity of a wildfire.
Less vegetation in the understory means a calmer fire that is more easily controlled by firefighters. A prescribed burn removes this understory providing a reduction in fire risk but is only a temporary sugar hit. With time the understory regenerates and regrows thicker than it was before, providing even more fuel for wildfires which is exactly the opposite of your intended outcome. Consistent with this principle, Zylstra’s work shows that in Western Australia bushfires are, in fact, are most likely to occur in bush where prescribed burns have taken place.
Then there is the property damage and death caused by the escape of prescribed burns, and this is not to mention the terrible impact of the burns on native wildlife that die from heat, flames and smoke inhalation.
As health experts debate the wisdom of holding the Sydney Marathon in conditions of such poor air quality, it’s time to rethink Sydney’s annual prescribed bush bonfire. When you look at the evidence and the harm caused by prescribed burns it is clear that our prescription for treating bushfire danger is wrong. As climate change makes fire conditions worse, we need a new approach to dealing with wildfire in our increasingly sunburnt country.
Dr Stephen Lightfoot is a consultant anaesthetist practising in Sydney’s south.
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