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Tackling bushfire threats: lessons from the HEAL 2023 conference

Introduction by Croakey: As Dr Lesley Russell outlines in the post below for the Croakey Conference News Service, bushfires/wildfires are on the rise globally.

Even as the HEAL 2023 conference was taking place in mid-November, the Guardian was reporting that a land area greater than that of Spain has burned in Australia’s north this year. The following week saw up to 18 families lose their homes to a huge bushfire on the northern outskirts of Perth that took days to control.

The conference included international and local presentations on different aspects of the bushfire threat, with some important take-away messages, including the importance of effective communications. 


Lesley Russell writes:

Over three days from 14 November, the third annual conference for the Healthy Environments and Lives (HEAL) Network, “Collective Action for Health, Environment and Climate”, analysed and discussed the leading health, climate and environmental challenges facing Australia, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world.

A major climate change threat is the increasing frequency and severity of bushfires / wildfires, as well as the increasing duration of fire seasons and the occurrence of extreme wildfire events. This means physical and mental health hazards that extend well beyond those in the immediate vicinity of the fires, the destruction of homes, communities and environments, and loss of biodiversity.

Australia’s summer has yet to officially begin, but already there are daily reports of bushfires around the nation, with fears that the arrival of El Niño will increase the bushfire risk. The average bushfire frequency in Australia has doubled since 1980; in some places, fires are occurring so often, entire ecosystems are at risk of collapse.

The focus of a number of sessions at HEAL2023 – bushfires and their consequences, and efforts to better manage these – was therefore very timely.

Getting serious about smoke

In the session on Bushfires, Air Pollution & Extreme Weather Events/Rural & Remote Health, Dr Sarah Henderson from the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control spoke about her 20 years of work on wildfire smoke and the impact of the unprecedented 2023 wildfire season in Canada.

In words that ring true for many working in this space in Australia, Henderson referenced Chicken Little’s warnings that “the sky is falling,” telling the conference:

For this entire period I have been shouting my head off about wildfire smoke, and why it’s so important from a public health perspective.”

However, it is clear that her shouting has led to meaningful action.

Henderson told the conference that, in 2012, the Health and Smoke Exposure (HASE) Coordination Committee was established to coordinate planning and response efforts related to public health impacts for significant wildfire smoke events in British Columbia.

The committee includes public health agencies from across the province, First Nations Health Authority, BC Emergency Health Services, Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, BC Wildfire Service, Health Emergency Management BC, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and WorkSafe BC.

Henderson outlined how the committee works:

“We all have a table where we come together and work on the management of these exposures when they occur. We develop materials together. We do work together, and we have this guidance document that lays out how we’re going to respond.”

Some of the resources Henderson referred to are here:

Henderson emphasised the importance of being prepared ahead of wildfire season. She also described how frustrating it is when public health solutions are not implemented.

One of the big frustrations is that the solutions exist. It’s an implementation problem, and how they get to those implementations, and how to advocate for those implementations as public health professionals is always a challenge.”

Speaking in the same session, Dr Lucas Hertzog, from the Curtin University School of Population Health and the WHO Collaborating Centre for Climate Change and Health Impact Assessment, also highlighted the importance of implementation.

He emphasised that, while we know what to do to address the hazards of smoke and particulate matter from bushfires – health warnings and public education, improving air quality in buildings – these actions often are not implemented.

He noted that the Global Burden of Disease study shows air pollution from wildfires is now a major risk factor for early death and disability worldwide, and wildfires killed an estimated 130,000 people worldwide in 2019.

Planning and support for recovery

Dr Carina Anderson from the University of Southern Queensland picked up on another issue raised by Henderson – the need to plan and be prepared for bushfires and their consequences.

She presented work from a project funded by the Federal Government’s Black Summer Bushfire Recovery Grants Program to help build resilience in the communities in the Noosa Shire affected by the 2019 bushfires.

Interviews with Noosa residents identified three main themes: (1) planning; (2) support and wellbeing; and (3) communication.

Communicating crisis

Not surprisingly, the issues of effective communication and trusted sources of information were raised in several presentations and discussions.

Alice Cronin from Victoria University highlighted the importance in a multicultural country like Australia of communicating emergency information around extreme weather events in multiple languages.

And in a presentation from the Indian Institutue of Technology in Madras, Aswin Giri looked at where different population groups in India get credible information about air quality and what preventive actions they then take in response.

In the session on Science Communication & Risk Perception, Dr Rebekah Anderson, who works in behavioural change at the University of Melbourne, outlined how to optimise science communication to ensure research translation and evidence-based policies and actions and, importantly, to do no harm.

She listed the three key – and interlinked – components of communication as: (1) make it compelling; (2) ensure it is understandable; and (3) be accurate.

Communication during bushfire events was also one of the topics explored by the Tasmanian HEAL Hub, during the State and Territory-based sessions the day before the National Conference.

The Tasmanian report back to the conference served to highlight how practical advice can help communities and families plan for a catastrophic bushfire day.

People need answers to questions like “what does this planning look like and how do I do it?”

Reassurance and guidance are key aspects of planning for such catastrophic events.

First Nations leadership

Around the world, Indigenous peoples have been using fire for generations, in cultural and land management practices. Wildfires have a disproportionate and destructive impact on Indigenous communities. This is as true in Australia as it is internationally.

A pronounced theme during the #HEAL2023 conference was the need to integrate and capitalise on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge in co-design for research and implementation, in building resilience and in environmental management mechanisms.

See these two recent articles from the HEAL conference:

The Darwin Centre for Bushfire Research at Charles Darwin has been working with Indigenous land managers, conservation, research and government organisations in northern Australia to find more effective ways to manage wildfires.

This collaboration has led to a new approach to reducing bushfire risk, blending modern scientific knowledge with traditional Indigenous land management practices.

The Indigenous Knowledge Institute at the University of Melbourne has also outlined how combining traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fire management techniques with new technologies can improve environmental outcomes and reduce bushfire risk.

Take-away lessons

  1. Australia needs better coordination and planning to prevent and address the health and environmental impacts of bushfires.

The British Columbia Coordination Committee provides a useful model. Hopefully this is an issue that will be addressed in the (yet to be released) National Health and Climate Strategy.

  1. Better community consultation and education, and appropriate and timely provision of guidance on emergency action are essential.

This must take into account the different ways people access information, the information sources they consider to be trustworthy, and the language needs of a multicultural population.

  1. As highlighted by Dr Sarah Henderson, more research is needed on the health effects of bushfire smoke, especially the long-term effects.

A “guidance” on the health impacts of bushfire smoke from the Federal Department of Health and Aged Care is fairly dismissive of the long-term impacts, but acknowledges that there is limited information about the long-term implications of prolonged exposures.

In early 2020, in an article for Croakey Health Media, I outlined the case for research into the long-term health effects of bushfires. As far as I can determine, only $5 million has been provided towards this work.

  1. An article from researchers at the Darwin Centre for Bushfire Research, published in The Conversation in 2021, makes a seminal point that was also made several times during the HEAL2023 conference:

a collaborative approach to emergency management [of issues around bushfires and climate change] can create opportunities on country, enhance cultural and learning opportunities for Indigenous peoples and deliver environmental benefits for everyone.”

• See the Twitter thread of the bushfire session of HEAL 2023 from Alison Barrett here.

• The Bushfires, Air Pollution and Extreme Events theme of the HEAL Network has invited researchers and policy makers around Australia to complete a short survey to help with its future work (closes 6 December).


Follow the conference news on Twitter at #HEAL2023 and via this Twitter list of presenters and participants, and see the previous articles from HEAL 2023 here, here and here.