Adapting bushfire risk management could save us all, Tasmanian academics say

Adapting bushfire risk management could save us all, Tasmanian academics say

26 May 2016

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Australia — Changing how we reduce bushfire risk around our communities could benefit our health and the environment.

Two Tasmanian academics have been looking into the public risks of smoke from bushfires and planned burns.

“Smoke is really interesting,” Dr Fay Johnston from the Menzies Institute of Medical Research told Louise Saunders on936 ABC Hobart.

“It affects the air over a wide scale.

“It’s really important from a public health perspective because everybody breathes the air.”

Dr Johnston saidsmoke from bushfires and planned fuel reduction burns affected the health of everyone, but was particularly dangerous for vulnerable people.

She said your heart and lungs and the propensity for your blood to form clots could be affected.

“[It] might be fine for two-thirds of the population, but a lot of people are going to be at higher risk from those sorts of things,” she said.

Professor David Bowman from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Tasmania has been looking into how bushfire risks can be mitigated without a negative impact on public health.

Smoke from planned burns could be shortening lives

He said planned burns did reduce the risk to communities from bushfires but the smoke generated by them could be shortening people’s lives.

“Almost certainly, some susceptible individuals probably had their life truncated [from smoke from planned burns],” he said.

“Now that’s pretty damn serious.”

Professor Bowman said extreme bushfire events such as the burning ofWorld Heritage Areas in Tasmania and theserious wildfires in Canada would become more common as the climate changed.

“[I’m] really aware that with rapidly changing climates, our communities are just not safe,” he said.

“People who fight fires don’t need to be told about climate change, they understand that reality.

“What worked up until a couple of years ago isn’t going to work anymore given rapidly changing and evolving fire seasons.

“We’ve got to start adapting.”

Thinning bush rather than burning bush

Professor Bowman said an alternative to fuel reduction burns was thinning out bush areas on the suburban edges.

“Maybe what you’ve got to do is get into the bush that fringes our suburbs and thin it out,” he said.

“And there’s a bycatch in that — if you can take that debris out of the bush, you could actually turn it into pellets to burn in domestic heaters.”

Wood heaters ‘a health hazard’

Dr Johnston said pellet fire heaters were better on the environment and public health than traditional wood heaters.

“Here in Tasmania an awful lot of our towns get really poor air quality all through winter because of wood heaters,” she said.

“That is a greater health hazard than our intermittent severe fires and planned burns.”

She said many wood heaters override the emission reduction measures and pellet fires produced about the same emissions as a gas heater.

Professor Bowman said fire management needed to evolve for public health and environmental benefits and it was up to the community to make the change.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said.

“We could get material out of the fringing areas of our suburbs and cities, turn that into a valuable product, reduce the risk to our cities, clean up our air sheds, reduce carbon emissions.

“There’s this amazing opportunity to have it all.”

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