Australian wildfires are a daily part of the news cycle. Astronauts in the international space station are watching as smoke circles the earth. Players have withdrawn from the Australian Open, one of the four grand slam tournaments. A billion animals dead. To put a personal face on this catastrophe, we wrote to our friend allergist Dr. John Weiner, who has been contributing to this website since 2011. (His piece on treating US GIs in Alice Springs remains a favorite.) – Henry Ehrlich
Thank you for your thoughts. My family and I are well. We live in a rural area 60 kms south of Melbourne on the edge of Bass Strait, which separates us from Tasmania. The main fires are 200kms+ to our east and northeast. Though many communities have suffered badly, thankfully our only problem has been the smoke. At one time this week Melbourne was the most heavily polluted city in the world, with PM2.5 particles* reaching hazardous levels. It has cleared with southerly winds from the Southern Ocean, but will return in the next 48 hours with wind shift.
ED departments in Melbourne and Sydney report about a 30% increase in respiratory-related attendances. In my own patients, over 50% of those with asthma report mild to moderate exacerbations, and many without asthma complain of cough and itchy eyes.
Of course, nothing can compare with the human toll in deaths and injury, and the destruction of homes, and the devastation of landscape and animals. I saw one farmer’s wife interviewed who said she and her husband had shot about 800 injured livestock. The role of pollutants in the smoke, even of asbestos (from some of the older dwellings in the bush) is unknown.
There is no doubt that climate change has worsened Australia’s fire risk, but we have always had fires. Indigenous Australians utilized fire for hunting. The first major Victorian fire in modern history was in 1851. It destroyed 12 million acres and killed a million sheep. The one I remember vividly was the Ash Wednesday Fires on 16 February 1983 (my 35th birthday) when, at our inner suburban Melbourne home with my family and both parents, the atmosphere blackened, and embers fell. Those fires were 100 kms to our west and affected our surf beaches. A family whose son was a mate of mine at Anglesea, on the coast, and where I used to spend every major school holidays, had escaped to the beach with hundreds of others to avoid the fires.
In 2009 the Victorian Black Saturday fires killed 173 people, including a well-respected respiratory physician who taught me when I did a respiratory term at our Veterans hospital in 1974.
About 100 major fire events were recorded in Australia in the last 170 years, and of course innumerable smaller blazes. Eucalyptus forests can burn ferociously, and, as we are warned, in extreme cases the heat will kill you before you see the flames.
Victoria is down south, and our peak fire risk is actually in February. The current conflagration, with major effects in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia as well as our state, comes after a long drought, years of increasing average temperatures, and probably reduced clearing of undergrowth outside the fire season. The role of fuel reduction as a means of lessening fire risk is currently controversial in the face of climate change. In any case, our Federal Government has announced a Royal Commission for the fires.
I must add the Australians owe a continuing debt to our firefighters, most of them volunteers. Many of them have been killed or injured over the years while protecting other people’s lives and property. And we are so grateful to the international response of money, equipment, and firefighters.
John Weiner is a medical consultant in the diagnosis and treatment of allergic diseases and asthma. After completing his medical degree at the University of Melbourne, John obtained specialist qualifications in internal medicine (clinical immunology and allergy) and pathology (anatomical pathology). John is a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal College of Pathologists of Australia.
*We have posted on the hazards of 2.5 particles several times, notably in this piece by Elizabeth Mueller of Berkley Earth, entitled Half a Cigarette a Day for Your Asthmatic Child.