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Smoke signals new health challenges ahead for future emergency planning

Rebecca Vassarotti 8 January 2020 83
Parliament House

Smoke blanketing Parliament House. Photos: Region Media.

Canberra has now choked through a month of toxic smoke. This doesn’t compare to the horror that many of our South Coast neighbours have faced with the ongoing bushfire crisis, but this smoke haze is one of the consequences of an unprecedented bushfire season that experts had warned about.

It’s hard to fathom how we got here given the advice of fire services and emergency personnel wasn’t taken on by the Federal Government to whom we look for leadership and action. As we look back on the past weeks, we must pay tribute to our incredible fire and emergency workers who have fought the most recent bushfires and have supported evacuees.

Thick smoke still hangs in the air. Throughout this emergency, Canberra regularly made the top of the global ranking of most toxic air quality table. This is a scenario that just a few weeks ago would have been unfathomable.

Our city – the bush capital with crisp blue skies and beautiful mountain ranges – has on some days been reduced to a smoky ghost town where cultural institutions have closed their doors and when people do venture out, they do so with masks and worried faces. Each morning, as we breath the air inside our houses, adjust our eyes to the light we get some sense of what is in front of us for the day, and how we might need to modify our usual lives. It’s predicted to continue for many more weeks. While this isn’t a crisis that has the immediacy of flames threatening lives and homes, this is a slow-moving public health threat that our citizens could be living with for decades to come.

Unsurprisingly, those who are being most affected are the sick, the poor, the old and the vulnerable. Doctors and others are raising concerns about the impacts on vulnerable citizens.

A group of university students worried about homeless and vulnerable people took the initiative to source, purchase and distribute P2 masks.  Now the ACT Government is working to distribute over 100,000 of these masks to vulnerable communities,  It’s the case that these masks need to be fitted properly and do have limitations in the protection they provide. However, for some groups of people unable to stay inside, it’s one way to provide some kind of protection. With the shutting of many public facilities on the most dangerous days, an ongoing issue is how the most vulnerable in our community, those sleeping rough, heed the advice to stay indoors.  While the volunteer-led, funded and managed Safe Shelter program operates in winter months to provide some comfort to people sleeping rough in the cold winter months,  there is virtually nowhere for people to go to on these days of high risk.

Last year the ACT Government passed a motion recognising that we were facing a climate emergency, in part due to its understanding of an increasing risk of extreme weather events and increased bushfire risk. At the time we were yet to really understand what this meant. However, with this public health issue, this is perhaps the first test of our response to this emergency. And it feels like there is a need to act urgently to put in place measures to protect our health – particularly for those at most risk.

Some of what needs to happen will be the responsibility of those outside our city – the calls for a national climate and management plan, for better resourcing and equipment for neighbouring rural fire services.

However, there are still lessons for us here in the ACT. We have a history on reflecting on crises and learning lessons as was demonstrated in our response to the 2003 Canberra bushfires. Some of the things we could think about include a specific crisis management plan that is triggered when our air quality measures reach a specific hazardous point. We could consider conditions in approvals for private event operators that enable Governments to step in to ensure that there are not activities undertaken that further undermine air quality (yes, I am talking about Summernats). We could consider what are the best protective equipment in these types of scenarios and have a coordinated approach to distributing these if needed.

This is not normal. This current public health situation highlights the need for more action on issues related to this bushfire emergency. What do you think we need to do to respond to the immediate and long-term health impacts of extreme weather events such as bushfires?

Rebecca is an ACT Greens candidate for the seat of Kurrajong in the 2020 Territory election.


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83 Responses to Smoke signals new health challenges ahead for future emergency planning
Peter McDonald Peter McDonald 10:23 pm 10 Jan 20

Maybe if a tax is imposed on smoke it will go away.

mark boast mark boast 2:56 pm 10 Jan 20

This has been such a length event and combined with disruption due nearby fires has had a huge effect on the holiday season. Going back to work when this is all over there will be a lot of frustrated parents and irritable kiddies. Timely to consider granting an extra week of hold at Easter so that they get a chance to make up for lost time off and of course recover our ACT Happiness rating.

Ctl_Alt_Del Ctl_Alt_Del 9:23 am 10 Jan 20

It was good to see local government FINALLY realise this was a public health issue and sourced large quantities of P2 masks.

Sophie Louise Sophie Louise 8:58 pm 09 Jan 20

What about the asbestos in the smoke - alot of the houses burnt are from that era.

    Mark Valerius Mark Valerius 5:03 pm 11 Jan 20

    Sophie, the likelihood of asbestos is the smoke is low. The biggest risk is during the cleanup of razed homes.

Julie Patricia Smith Julie Patricia Smith 6:35 pm 09 Jan 20

The government allowing Summernats burnouts, especially in this weather was an abomination.

Burning tyres is normally prohibited by law both because the smoke is toxic and because it is cancer producing

But every year those in neighbouring suburbs are forced to breathe it or leave town for the summernats period . This year we had the addition of bushfire smoke. The burnout Participants get extra points for flames, great when there is a total fire ban. Gutless government not to force them to hold it on another day. They could and should have cancelled the exemption for the burnouts

My biggest concern tho is a wider one.

How would local residents fare if a bushfire emergency occurred during summernats and 30000 participants not all well behaved or sober try to evacuate from EPIC and surrounds?

We could get no information about this and the organisers said they hadn’t considered it! So much for the ACT government looking out for ACT citizens...

    Ben Jones Ben Jones 7:41 pm 09 Jan 20

    Julie Patricia Smith has the burnout smoke ever registered on the smoke quality index ?

    Julie Patricia Smith Julie Patricia Smith 8:00 pm 09 Jan 20

    In many years the monitoring of air quality in Watson during Summernats has shown the levels exceed safe health limits of carcinogenic and toxic chemicals.

    This is a different measure from the smoke air quality index which is measuring something different and looks at smoke ie carbon particulates at various places in the ACT

    A burning tree is different from a burning tyre . We and our pets and chooks are forced to breathe both

    Julie Patricia Smith Julie Patricia Smith 8:09 pm 09 Jan 20

    Ben Jones to help you understand imagine if your pregnant wife or newborn son or preschooler was forced to breathe in cancer producing chemicals for three days every year, for example forced smoking of cigarettes all day. Would you be happy? If your answer is yes you are either selfish or stupid

    Julia Landford Julia Landford 8:14 pm 09 Jan 20

    Julie Patricia Smith it should not be held in Watson! It should be somewhere away from urban areas so it doesn’t continue to affect communities in so many negative ways.

    Julie Patricia Smith Julie Patricia Smith 8:17 pm 09 Jan 20

    Julia Landford no argument from me on that

    But let's also spare the wildlife by requiring that all toxic fumes be kept on site.

    Julia Landford Julia Landford 8:21 pm 09 Jan 20

    Julie Patricia Smith I agree totally.

    Ben Jones Ben Jones 7:48 am 10 Jan 20

    Julie Patricia Smith I get it Julie. You don’t like Summernats. But guess what, plenty do.

    Using the bushfire as a platform to say we shouldn’t have Summernats is pretty pathetic.

    Julie Patricia Smith Julie Patricia Smith 7:51 am 10 Jan 20

    Ben Jones actually I think the attitude of Summernats to holding the burnouts is more so.

Madashell Madashell 5:40 pm 09 Jan 20

Well with a government full of climate deniers and tricky accountants we lead the world in running away from the problem, the science and the solutions. Pretty clear this will eventually be the new norm. Wonder if Scomo was looking at property when he was holidaying in Hawaii while the country burned.

    Kent Street Kent Street 11:07 am 10 Jan 20

    Of course the air quality in Canberra, and impact of Summernats, was Morrison’s fault. Although, I’m surprised that you didn’t throw Zed and Abbott in as well.

Invis.Abilities Invis.Abilities 3:58 pm 09 Jan 20

Only once in the last 6 weeks of bushfire smoke has health advice suggested temporary relocation for sensitive groups. While it’s not an easy option for most, it’s a choice some of us have had to make for our families.

Also if hazardous smoke is expected to continue past February and make indoor spaces unsafe too, what is being planned for school children?

Frank Trapani Frank Trapani 1:58 pm 09 Jan 20

Let this be a lesson learned from the devastating and extremely sad outcome and from now on there is no more birching to get personal benefit and that climate change, is the only cause of those calamity...I think that the time has come to assess the need of bigger TV or electric cars ..etc...And get together all the resources that are available to find out the most effective way to control and survive any future adverse disaster..

Peter Major Peter Major 12:57 pm 09 Jan 20

Having a state level disaster plan, addressing air quality degradation is critical and unfortunately overlooked due to the rarity of the event.

However a more rapid response should have been forthcoming from the Barr government to address the situation. Hmmmm wasn't everyone on leave??

Pandy Pandy 10:09 am 09 Jan 20

Move the seat of power back to Melbourne.

Christine Evans Christine Evans 10:04 am 09 Jan 20

Wouldn’t it be great if those people who were eligible for two free face masks could also get maybe a one off rebate on their electricity bills. Having to run air purifiers constantly and fans/air conditioners because you can’t open a window is costly. Next electricity bill is going to be difficult to pay for many

    Joanna PM Joanna PM 10:11 am 09 Jan 20

    Christine Evans it’s an excellent point

    Ben Jones Ben Jones 10:25 am 09 Jan 20

    Christine Evans who’s going to pay for that though ? The electricity isn’t government supplied these days.

    Christine Evans Christine Evans 10:29 am 09 Jan 20

    Ben Jones It would be a government rebate that people would use towards paying their bills. Federally funded ideally as the smoke is a direct result of a national emergency

    Ben Jones Ben Jones 10:50 am 09 Jan 20

    Christine Evans the government has already pledged $2bill. That’s enough

    Christine Evans Christine Evans 11:52 am 09 Jan 20

    Ben Jones Nowhere near enough. Majority of that will be spent on infrastructure not people affected.

    Ben Jones Ben Jones 7:42 pm 09 Jan 20

    Christine Evans infrastructure. Like housing ....

    Christine Evans Christine Evans 8:03 pm 09 Jan 20

    Ben Jones Unfortunately no, infrastructure like roads and electricity supply. Houses will have to be paid for by owners, insurance companies with a small amount of charity if people are lucky

Veronika Sain Veronika Sain 10:01 am 09 Jan 20

You can’t ameliorate for Bush fire smoke haze in Canberra - other than moving away.

The city is built in a valley of sorts, it’s a smoke trap.

Priscilla Garner Priscilla Garner 10:01 am 09 Jan 20

I was appalled that during unprecedented levels of air pollution in the ACT that the Summernats organisers continued with burn out competitions. This showed a disregard for the health of those attending Summernats and also the surrounding residents. Moving forward I hope to see better ways to manage events and situations that undermine Canberra's air quality when it is already seriously compromised.

    Ben Jones Ben Jones 10:26 am 09 Jan 20

    Priscilla Garner has Summernats ever changed the air quality readings in Canberra ?

    We get it, you don’t like Summernats , plenty do... it’s their choice to attend or not.

    Damien Cummings Damien Cummings 10:31 am 09 Jan 20

    Oh no, another Summernats post🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️

    Julie Patricia Smith Julie Patricia Smith 8:02 pm 09 Jan 20

    Ben Jones yes the monitoring in many years has shown unsafe levels of to its in nearby suburbs

Katerina Teaiwa Katerina Teaiwa 9:26 am 09 Jan 20

Yes, Summernats in the middle of this was mind boggling.

Katie Kolenberg Katie Kolenberg 9:12 am 09 Jan 20

And it’s not just our health that this is affecting. For many it is work, businesses and ultimately their livelihoods. This is very far reaching.

Siwaporn Chuangching Siwaporn Chuangching 8:56 am 09 Jan 20

I still can’t find any p2 mask , anybody know where it’s available in north or civic?? Thanks

    Josh TeamMak H Josh TeamMak H 9:01 am 09 Jan 20

    Siwaporn Chuangching Bunnings, chemist. Otherwise, I have some spare if you wanna

    Siwaporn Chuangching Siwaporn Chuangching 9:02 am 09 Jan 20

    Josh TeamMak H thank you very much, today I will try to call them again

    Joanna PM Joanna PM 10:12 am 09 Jan 20

    Siwaporn Chuangching friend got some from the paint store in Belconnen

    Julie Maynard Julie Maynard 10:12 am 09 Jan 20

    Siwaporn Chuangching Facebook marketplace, chemist, Bunnings, workwear stores, online stores. Heaps of options.

    Siwaporn Chuangching Siwaporn Chuangching 10:20 am 09 Jan 20

    Joanna PM thanks

    Siwaporn Chuangching Siwaporn Chuangching 10:20 am 09 Jan 20

    Julie Maynard thanks

Rebecca Stockley Gallacher Rebecca Stockley Gallacher 8:55 am 09 Jan 20

Beck Sinclair need a case study for climate change induced health impacts?

    Beck Sinclair Beck Sinclair 10:10 am 09 Jan 20

    Rebecca Doctors for the environment in Oz have been speaking up, we need bold political action!

Gordon Gullock Gordon Gullock 8:39 am 09 Jan 20

Oh Sew Sweet and more to come. Cool wet weather won't come soon enough.

    Oh Sew Sweet Oh Sew Sweet 9:02 am 09 Jan 20

    Gordon Gullock ours is supposed to be bad tomorrow and we won't have power so shall be going out for the day, will go to Eastland and see a movie. Power off from 8:30 - 4:00pm so trying to get things done today.

    Gordon Gullock Gordon Gullock 11:41 am 09 Jan 20

    Oh Sew Sweet great timing.

Rauny Worm Rauny Worm 8:05 am 09 Jan 20

Can we please get some free electricity while the smoke persists?!

    Caroline Wall Caroline Wall 8:58 am 09 Jan 20

    Rauny Worm Yes - running the aircon all day to keep the smoke out...

    Ben Jones Ben Jones 9:25 am 09 Jan 20

    Rauny Worm why ? I’m all for free electricity but they are private business after all.

    Jill Lyall Jill Lyall 11:07 am 09 Jan 20

    Rauny Worm they should be public - privatisation is a rort benefiting a few

    Rauny Worm Rauny Worm 12:24 pm 09 Jan 20

    Ben Jones ...and why should private business not make a contribution to a stressed community the normally profit from endlessly..?

    Ben Jones Ben Jones 12:45 pm 09 Jan 20

    Rauny Worm because it’s summer. Like it or not, in this heat, people are running air cons regardless.

Chloe Harpley Chloe Harpley 7:58 am 09 Jan 20

With temperatures and air toxicity breaking records, I really hope the rental sector looks at how many properties (that people generally pay $450/week + for) don't seal up and let smoke in, and also have no form of air-conditioning! Should be a landlord's obligation to provide these quite basic amenities considering the severity of the weather, and the certainty that it'll get worse before it gets better.

    Sarah Emmerson Sarah Emmerson 8:21 am 09 Jan 20

    Chloe Harpley actually could it not be a government matter?

    Chloe Harpley Chloe Harpley 8:22 am 09 Jan 20

    Sarah yeah it should definitely be a top-down mandate, but let's not forget that industries can makes changes internally w/o the government telling them to! 😊

    Lynne Meredith Lynne Meredith 8:45 am 09 Jan 20

    Chloe Harpley if a tenant doesn’t like condition of the home then move to one that suits their needs...

    Chloe Harpley Chloe Harpley 8:47 am 09 Jan 20

    Lynne unfortunately not everyone has the income or means to simply up and move to a better place.. And, I see that as just giving the problem to another poor person who can't afford a new or top-of-the-line place to live.

    Chloe Harpley Chloe Harpley 8:55 am 09 Jan 20

    Corey this smoke is predicted to stay about in Canberra well into April, which would be 4 months of toxic exposure for the city. Also, from what the scientists and experts are have been warning us about for decades is that these extreme conditions and weather events are only going to become more severe and frequent with time. Here's an ACT Government document that summarises this: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=https://www.environment.act.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/671274/ACTsnapshot_WEB.pdf&ved=2ahUKEwirst64_vTmAhWqyDgGHVvpDfMQFjAAegQIAxAB&usg=AOvVaw0-O6G3oRaUkwZfEXALIZcI 😊

    Josh TeamMak H Josh TeamMak H 9:02 am 09 Jan 20

    sounds like first world problem

    Jesse Mahoney Jesse Mahoney 9:22 am 09 Jan 20

    You think landlords have (tens of) thousands of dollars to stump on improving the way houses seal up? Patching up 50 year old window frames, doors and walls, isn't a cheap or easy ask.

    I guess if you're prepared for rents to go up accordingly. Maybe a couple hundred a week, it'll work.

    This issue is an inconvenience/problem for everyone. Why pit groups against one another?

    Geoff Rey Geoff Rey 9:38 am 09 Jan 20

    Chloe unfortunately not all owners have the income or means to simply install air conditioning or replace all the windows and doors in a rental property.

    Corey Karl Corey Karl 9:40 am 09 Jan 20

    Chloe Harpley so the landlords can put the price up to recoup their losses, or they just expected to take the hit ??

    Scarlett Butler Scarlett Butler 9:54 am 09 Jan 20

    Chloe Harpley I’m a tenant, who’s bought two air conditioners suitable to use here, and two air purifiers. I’ve also taped around windows and doors if necessary. It’s absolutely not my landlords problem to fix this for me.

    Arety Kr Arety Kr 10:12 am 09 Jan 20

    Jesse Mahoney exactly. This is not only a renters problem. Its an owner occupiers problem also!

    William William William William 12:24 pm 09 Jan 20

    Chloe Harpley I lived in government housing unless you over 70 they will never give it too you we tried for 18 years never got anywhere minister after ministers. It is classed as a luxury. Heating, yes, solar, yes, gas yes, carpets, yes. Painting, repairs yes, But Not Aircon all depending wgat states you live in Too, 🤔😆😆😆😃

    Matt Lawler Matt Lawler 6:53 am 10 Jan 20

    Lol "SeAl Up My HoUsE" no house is 100% air tight or you'd suffocate. It's about creating a slightly positive air pressure that isn't drawing air (smoke) in from outside. You can do this yourself, has nothing to do with being a tenant or not. 🙄

    Michael McDonnell Michael McDonnell 7:55 am 10 Jan 20

    Sarah Emmerson how? What buismess is it of the government

    Mick O'Brien Mick O'Brien 8:09 am 10 Jan 20

    Michael McDonnell entitlement at its best!!

    Janet Mulgrue Janet Mulgrue 11:25 am 10 Jan 20

    Josh TeamMak H but we are rapidly becoming a third world country

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