Australians need to get better at dealing with episodic smoke events
Landscape fires are increasing in frequency and severity, and their associated smoke emissions, both gaseous and aerosolised, have major implications for global warming, rainfall distribution and human health.1 Globally, about 340 000 deaths each year are estimated to be attributable to landscape fire smoke.2 While much of the burden falls on poorer regions of the world affected by tropical deforestation and savannah fires, landscape fire smoke regularly affects temperate regions and, under climate change, the impact on the population is projected to increase substantially.3 Australia’s highly flammable fire-adapted biota makes landscape fire smoke an unavoidable and increasingly important environmental exposure. To reduce bushfire risk in Australia, an accepted land management practice is deliberate burning to reduce fuel loads and, hence, the fire hazard.4 Such prescribed burning is usually limited to calm meteorological conditions when fires can be more easily contained, but smoke dispersal is often less effective. Lighting multiple fires under these conditions may cause severe pollution episodes, as experienced in Sydney in May 2016.4 In sum, smoke exposure from both uncontrolled and prescribed fires is a fact of life in Australia, so understanding the health consequences and mitigation strategies is essential for community members and their health providers alike. The evidence base for fire smoke pathophysiology, epidemiology and public health interventions has expanded considerably over the past decade, and the key points are summarised in this article.
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