NSW and Queensland bushfires: experts available for comment

11 November 2019
'Catastrophic fire danger' and extreme weather across Australia
How might bushfires threaten animals like the koala? What's the link between coal and CO2? University of Sydney experts are available for comment on issues related to bushfires.

This week the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a state of emergency for the next seven days as NSW prepares for extreme weather conditions.

Queensland Rural Fire Service also issued prepare to leave warnings after devastating fires across the state. 

Experts are available for comment via the media office on a range of topics including how to keep pets safe and the impact on human health and air pollution.   

How bushfires affect health, air pollution

“Bushfires create short-term extreme air pollution events on top of these long-term average conditions. Most healthy people won’t have long-term health consequences from short bushfire smoke events," said Dr Ivan Hanigan from the University's Rural Clinical School and School of Public Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health.

Dr Hanigan co-authored the MJA-Lancet Countdown on health and climate change released this week. He warned that the Countdown shows "every extreme weather event is now aggravated by climate change.” 

"Our research found long-term air pollution is a substantial contributor to the total death rate in Australia (at around 2 percent of all deaths).

"While long-term average air pollution concentrations are generally stable each year, the population exposure has been increasing due to the rising populations in polluted regions."

“If you have to go outside in smoke consider wearing a face mask. High-risk groups should seek medical advice quickly if their condition is worsening."

Are coal and CO2 linked to bushfires?

"Climate change has both direct and indirect pathways of causation to catastrophic fires," said Professor Glenda Wardle, who is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution in the University's Faculty of Science. 

"Drier, hotter and windier conditions increase the likelihood that fires will spread. Flammable vegetation such as eucalypt woodlands in NSW will also increase the chance of fires spreading. 

Climate is causally linked to the health of the bush.
Professor Glenda Wardle

"Much of NSW is also in drought and trees are dying and fuel loads are very dry, leading to dangerous conditions for fires to burn more intensely and spread fast. Under climate change, droughts are going to get longer and come more often, increasing the impact of fires.

"The place to take action is at the start of this causal chain – do not extract coal, reduce CO2 emissions, and plan to share the use water more carefully to keep our bush healthy and to provide towns with drinking water. Climate is causally linked to the health of the bush.

"Fire impacts animals in many and varied ways, especially because fire removes plants and the resources plants provide to animals. For example, birds and possums depend on tree hollows for shelter, but many trees will fall after fire. 

Professor Glenda Wardle is an expert in wildlife and conservation from the University of Sydney's School of Life and Environmental Sciences

Potentially catastrophic impact for koala population

"Koalas have always been affected by fire but the problem these days is that the koala is a vulnerable species, facing many different threats," said Dr Valentina Mella.

A koala driven to drink from water stations during a heatwave in March 2017. Credit: Kate Wilson.

"The added impact of fire might have catastrophic effects on koala populations. Koala numbers have already been declining in NSW because of habitat fragmentation, Chlamydial disease (which causes infertility), climate change and mortality related to urbanisation, such as vehicle strikes or domestic dog attacks.

"Now, more than 80 bushfires have destroyed thousands of hectares of good koala habitat, with hundreds of koalas feared dead. Koalas that live in already fragmented habitats (like urban areas near Port Macquarie) and survive the fires, will struggle to find available habitat to recolonise."

Dr Mella, who is a wildlife management expert, says you can take two important steps to help the species:

  1. Ensure you put water out for affected wildlife. Koalas are not the only animals affected by fire: birds, possums, gliders, wallabies are also victims and will likely be severely dehydrated.
  2. Help your local wildlife volunteers. Donating money directly to well know local rescue associations is often the best way to help. If you see injured wildlife, make sure you call the wildlife rescue groups in your area. When it is safe to do so, help your local wildlife volunteer group to estimate the loss of wildlife in the area by conducting transects in burnt areas. This is precious information to determine the effects of fire on koala numbers.

Working with farmers in western NSW, biologist Dr Valentina Mella is currently working on a project that found koalas supplement their water needs at drinking stations during extreme weather conditions. 

Slow recovery for vegetation

“The catastrophic and extreme fire alerts that have been issued for the Illawarra, Shoalhaven, Greater Sydney Region and Greater Hunter areas for Tuesday are unprecedented in their extent for this time of year," said Associate Professor Tina Bell.

"The bushfire season started several months ago in northern NSW and we are now feeling the effects of an extended dry period further south. We don’t expect this type of warning until much later in summer.

“Early season, high-intensity bushfires are likely to affect the recovery of vegetation if prolonged dry periods continue. This may be seen with slow or limited regrowth of leaves, reduced flowering and seed production and poor seedling germination.

"The impact of post-fire events such as movement of ash and soil from exposed surfaces and heating of blackened soil surfaces may also be increased if vegetation is slow to recover.”

Tina Bell is an Associate Professor in Fire Ecology in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences. She is also a member of the Sydney Institute of Agriculture

Desperate loss of habitat

“Fire is a natural part of Australian ecosystems and many of our plants and animals are adapted to it. However, changes to the frequency and intensity of fires can have a massive impact on wildlife," said Associate Professor Dieter Hochuli.

"The situation can be particularly precarious given that a lot of our wildlife are now restricted to living in reserves like natural parks. If those habitats are lost there is simply nowhere for them to go, and population numbers can decline to perilously low numbers. We know that risk of extinction increases exponentially as populations decline to low numbers so this raises significant concerns for their future.

"It’s not just the charismatic well known species that are at risk either. The insects that so many of our ecosystems are reliant on for services like pollination and nutrient cycling are very sensitive to fire. One of the great unknowns is just how, if it all, their populations and subsequently the services they provide will recover.”

Associate Professor Dieter Hochuli leads the integrative ecology group at University of Sydney.

Current disasters may be a "trailer" of what's to come

"The current catastrophic fires can be directly linked to a lack of rainfall and resulting extremely low levels of moisture content measured in forests across New South Wales," said humanitarian engineer, Dr Petr Matous.

Images of the smoke billows from Australia's east coast bushfires were captured by NASA's Terra satellite. Photo credit: NASA

Images of the smoke billows from Australia's east coast bushfires were captured by NASA's Terra satellite. Photo credit: NASA

"Most climate projection scenarios predict — with high confidence — further shifts in rainfall patterns across the country, which may lead to even harsher fire seasons in southern and eastern Australia in the future," he said.

"It is devastating to think that the current disasters may be just a trailer of what might be coming in the next decades. Some seasons will be wetter and safer than others depending on oscillating climatic systems such as El Niño, and in some areas, severe droughts might limit future vegetation growth which would decrease the amount of fuel for bush fires.

"The overall trend, however, is likely to be towards more hazards. These climatic changes accompanied by demographic changes driving increasing numbers of Sydney-siders towards tree-change, will require a new approach to spatial and infrastructure planning in most hazard-prone areas to provide more robust buffer zones between the bush and people’s homes."

Dr Petr Matous is a humanitarian and environmental engineer from the Faculty of Engineering's School of Civil Engineering.

How to keep pets safe

Dr Anne Fawcett from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science said there are a number of things you can do to ensure your pet is safe during a bushfire.

Keep leads, harnesses and carriers handy in the event you need to evacuate quickly.

Before a fire:

  1. Ensure your pet's microchip details are up to date. You can check this with the NSW Pet Registry.
  2. Let your neighbours know how many pets you have.
  3. Keep leads, harnesses and carriers handy.
  4. Ensure a supply of pet food, pet blankets, bowls and any medications are packed and ready to go.

In case of fires:

  1. Safely evacuate and bring animals with you. The earlier the better, as animals can become very stressed in an emergency and may be harder to catch or contain. 
  2. You may be able to board them at a vet facility if you cannot take to an evacuation centre, but boarding kennels need to be well out of the fire zone.

If you cannot bring animals:

  1. Do not tie them up.
  2. Keep animals indoors where possible with plenty of water and several bowls of food at different locations.
  3. Mark your property so people know how many and what species of animals are indoors.
  4. If keeping pets indoors, ensure that they are away from hazards like large windows or items that may fall, for example, pictures, ornaments or hanging items. A bathroom or laundry is usually best.
  5. Remember that animals can be impacted by smoke inhalation too. It is better if they are not exposed in the first place.

Impact on education

“This week, more than 600 schools in New South Wales and Queensland will be closed due to the bushfires ravaging these two states. These school closures are just one example of the many challenges that the impacts of climate change can pose to young people’s education,” said Blanche Verlie, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute who has a PhD in climate change education.

“Research has shown that increasingly intense and frequent natural disasters – combined with health impacts like heat stress, PTSD and other forms of trauma from such disasters, as well as anxiety about potential future ones – can negatively affect children's outcomes at school.”

This story will be updated as other experts become available. 

Full alerts from the Rural Fire Service can be found here for NSW and here for Queensland

Elissa Blake

Media Adviser (Humanities & Science)

Katie Booth

Media & PR Adviser

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