“Black Summer” is the name given to the 2019/20 fires. But another name could be used to describe it: “Smoke Summer”.
While many Australians volunteered their time to fight the flames threatening lives and property, researchers from across ANU also played their part by analysing data, engaging with media, and providing advice to the Government. This included Professor Sotiris Vardoulakis and team* who worked tirelessly to sharpen health messages on smoke, develop factsheets and infographics, advise patient groups and health professionals, and translate health advice into multiple minority languages.
For this effort, Vardoulakis has been presented with the Advocacy & Leadership Award at the virtual Australian Public Health Conference 2020.
“This is a great recognition of our work on public health communication during the terrible bushfires and in the aftermaths of the crisis. Many colleagues from across RSPH and ANU contributed tirelessly to this effort, and I am proud of our work to help protect public health and support affected communities,” says Vardoulakis.
Thankfully this year has been much cooler and wetter, and while we are unlikely to see these events again this summer, it’s no time to be complacent. With the release of the Royal Commission into the recent bushfire disaster, several actions can be taken to improve the way we address smoke risk.
“One of the problems we faced during last summer’s catastrophic bushfires was the lack of consistency in air quality reporting, and associated health messaging across jurisdictions,” says Vardoulakis.
“Health advice also needs to be more specific for vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women, young children, people with asthma or other lung or heart diseases, and the elderly. This health advice needs to be clear, but also sufficiently nuanced for different population groups.”
Vardoulakis also recommends a public health “air smart” campaign (similar to the “sun smart” campaign) to raise awareness on air pollution, and its sources and effects on health. As well as practical ways to reduce our exposure to smoke in our daily life. He further advises people to act now to ensure they are prepared for future smoke events.
“We need to have a ‘smoke avoidance plan’ in addition to a ‘bushfire survival plan,” says Vardoulakis.
“This may include checking the doors and windows in our homes to ensure they don’t have cracks or gaps that let the smoke in, stocking a few P2/N95 masks and knowing how to use them correctly, cleaning our air conditioning or air filtration system at home, or considering buying a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter.”
While acting to minimise the health impacts of bushfires is important, Vardoulakis stresses it is paramount we address the increasing temperatures and prolonged droughts we have been experiencing in Australia, and indeed, around the world.
“Although we cannot directly attribute every bushfire to climate change, our warming climate has substantially increased the frequency of extreme fire weather and the risk of bushfires across Australia,” says Vardoulakis.
“Decisive action to tackle climate change by cutting carbon emissions will reduce the risk of fires and save lives. In the long run, decarbonising our economy will not only decrease air pollution and the risk of fires, it will also generate green jobs and economic opportunities across all sectors. We cannot have economic prosperity without healthy people and a healthy environment.”
* Many people across ANU worked with Vardoulakis during the bushfire season, and continue to develop this research and health messaging. These include colleagues from the Research School of Population Health, ANU Medical School, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Climate Change Insitute, School of Culture History and Language, and the Bushfire Impact Working Group.
*** You can also learn read a recent article by Professor Vardoulakis and colleagues on bushfire smoke and the urgent need for a national health protection strategy.