Slow burn

That’s the headline for my latest article in Inside Story. Summary graf

Hundreds more deaths will result from the particulates created by Australia’s current crop of bushfires

At the time of writing, at least fourteen people have been killed by this season’s bushfires. And with most of January and all of February still to come, the number is sure to rise. But these dramatic deaths are far outweighed by the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of deaths that will ultimately result from the toxic smoke blanketing Australian cities.

The most dangerous component of bushfire smoke are tiny particulates, no more than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, known as PM2.5. Over the past twenty years, studies have shown that high levels of PM2.5 have contributed to millions of premature deaths in highly polluted cities like Beijing and Delhi. Sydney, Canberra and other Australian cities have recently joined this list. In 2016 alone, exposure to PM2.5 contributed to an estimated 4.1 million deaths worldwide from heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, chronic lung disease and respiratory infections.

Even before the current cataclysm, air pollution was a major health hazard. While Sydney’s prevailing average of 6 micrograms per cubic metre (6 μg/m3) is within international health standards, it is above the levels observed in most European and American cities. A study led by the Sydney Public Health Observatory’s Richard Broome estimated that particulates and associated forms of pollution already account for between 310 and 540 premature deaths annually.

As far as can be determined, the mortality and health risks of PM2.5 are a linear function of the level of exposure. Being exposed to 6 μg/m3 every day for a year, for example, amounts to 2190 “microgram days.” Broome and his colleagues’ work implies that each microgram day is associated with between 0.14 and 0.25 premature deaths. This figure is consistent with a range of international studies they cite.

The overall mortality effects are also a linear function of the number of people exposed. That’s why a city like Delhi, with thirty million people and an average PM2.5 of 150 μg/m3, suffers tens of thousands of premature deaths every year.

Since the start of the bushfire emergency, particulate levels have been far above the historical average, reaching an extreme of 250 μg/m3 in Oakdale, ninety kilometres from central Sydney, on 10 December. According to recording stations in Sydney, the average for November and December was 27 μg/m3, more than four times the usual level. That implies somewhere between 160 and 300 additional premature deaths.

But the fires began earlier than November, and Sydney is not the only city they have affected. Many millions of Australians have experienced the impact of the fires, and there is no reason to expect the emergency to end any time soon. It’s quite likely that the total number of premature deaths will be more than a thousand, and possibly more than the 1300 deaths expected on our roads (some of these, tragically, caused by the fires).

Climatic oscillations such as the Indian Ocean Dipole, which have contributed to the severity of the current disaster, are expected to abate over time, so it’s probable that we won’t see a similar disaster next year, and perhaps for a few years to come. But the underlying trend of global heating that made this season so catastrophic isn’t going away. Next time the oscillations are unfavourable, further heating will make things even worse.

Our current approach to dealing with climatic disasters, developed during the twentieth century, doesn’t deal adequately with steadily deteriorating climatic conditions. At a minimum, we need a standing national body, with substantial resources, ready to respond to such disasters as they occur. This would almost certainly wipe out the Morrison government’s treasured surplus, which is why the resistance to any kind of action has been so vigorous.

Even worse than budget fetishism has been the cultural commitment of the government to climate denialism and do-nothingism. The right’s commentariat peddles anti-science nonsense on a par with anti-vaxxerism and flat-earth cosmology, eagerly lapped up by the mostly elderly readership of the conservative press. The government can’t endorse this nonsense officially, so it takes refuge in the idea that Australia accounts for only a small proportion of total emissions (on their dubious accounting, 1 per cent).

But even 1 per cent of the current catastrophe is still a disaster. And just as emissions in other countries contribute to disasters here, our 1 per cent plays its part in fires, floods and other climate-related disasters around the world. No matter how you do your accounting, Australian climate denialism is already costing hundreds of lives, with much worse to come.

We might hope that the scenes we have witnessed would shock our political class out of its torpor. So far, there is little sign of that happening. •

87 thoughts on “Slow burn

  1. Interesting, disgusting, absurd, Smoko evoking the McCubbin ethos.
    “Past generations had “also faced natural disasters, floods, fires, global conflicts, disease and drought” and overcome them, the prime minister said in a video message. “That is the spirit of Australians, that is the spirit that is on display, that is a spirit that we can celebrate as Australians.”
    The Pentecostal preacher leads the way to smash the evils of the bush and the fire it hosts. God gave us the land to exploit and to defile, only He could make the earth hotter, so submit to his judgement.

  2. When “each microgram day is associated with between 0.14 and 0.25 premature deaths” does that mean per one million population exposed?

    The article overall is correct to my understanding. We do need a national fire fighting service. I would add we need a national water bombing air wing and conversion kits for military transports so they too can assist in fire fighting. Of course, we also need new national standards for housing and infrastructure such that houses, structures and infrastructures are not mixed with the bush to the current extent. This would mean new building standards and wide cleared areas around all suburbs, towns and infrastructures. The days of mixing burbs and bush are over.

    National parks will need new management techniques in hazard reduction techniques, access and firebreaks. One cannot say what is needed without intensive historical and empirical studies. It’s time to fund CSIRO and the universities to do these studies and to run management trials of different management regimes. Intensive studies of traditional aboriginal fire management (firestick) practices is also requried.

    J.Q. is right to point out that surplus fetishism also plays a role in our government’s do-nothing attitude and behavior. At root, surplus fetishism is about protecting share values, share incomes, economic rents and the value of money simpliciter for the highly monied class. In a very real sense, Australia is to be permitted to burn without attempts to ameliorate this disaster and ameleriorate or avert future disasters purely for the sake of gains and profits to the highly monied class.

  3. FWIW the rolling averages used by DPIE in NSW are misleading, their instruments are accurate but respond slowly so miss the transient peaks and the 24 hour average wipes the peaks right out. My optical scattering sensor is less accurate but tracks minute-by-minute much better, and I saw peaks way over 250µg/m³ on the 10th December. Note that the sensor saturates at about 1000µg/m³… the flat spot on the graph at 980µg/m³ is very likely saturation rather than levelling off. But it lasted less than half an hour, so … that’s ok?

  4. In NSW the govt cut the NP budget which led to mass sackings of skilled staff including fire fighters. The focus has shifted to mass infrastructure eg light rail and stadiums. The cost blow out of both these projects has been by govt error but they managed to get returned at the last election.

  5. @Ikonoclast

    NSW National Parks needs staff, at least to past levels which have been cut to “meet and greet” and many of those are on a casual basis. Field staff with long term employment, read local knowledge, experience and on ground supervision have been slashed while those that remain are demoralised Why did this happen? Read empathy from the National Party.

  6. Examples of weather extremes of the past are cause for greater concern, not less; similar extremes with global warming added will be worse. What the combination of Indian Dipole and strong el Nino (this time isn’t even el Nino) could get like with 3 – 5 degrees of warming is legitimately terrifying. I don’t think it takes extraordinary intellect to comprehend this.

    Every argument against taking the climate problem more seriously that the Morrison government supports – implicitly as well as explicitly – is deficient on facts, reasoning and ethics. Supporting the implicit sort – by virtue of them being misleading – is especially deficient on ethics.

    I think that, ultimately it is the ethics that are what this whole issue pivots on; the willingness to take fake “facts” as true and false reasoning as fact come down to deficient ethics. The blaming of others, whether others they dislike (greenies) or others they do like (Trump America, Brazil, India and China obstructing international agreements) is down to deficient ethics. Aligning Australia with those obstructionist nations to undermine international agreements is deficient in ethics. Excusing our 1.3% because others are emitting more is deficient in fact and reason and ethics. Celebrating growth of the exports that raise the contributions of others instead of reduce it is deficient in reason and ethics.

    I like to believe the issue teeters on the balance but it will be “moderate” conservative-right forces – not The Greens or the Labor Left – that will make Doubt, Deny, Delay politicking untenable. What policies a Conservative-Right that takes the climate problem seriously might support and advocate is unclear; even now those within their ranks that do take it seriously are more concerned with keeping heads down and mouths closed.

  7. Yes. May be worth adding that the health impact of ultrafine particles down to 0.1 micrometres is much less well understood, no doubt because it has only recently become possible to measure exposures. A recent small study in the non-industrial Flemish town of Hasselt found concentrations in placentas equivalent to 5 billion nanoparticles per placenta. This helps explain observed illness in newborn babies. When this is better understood, the WHO estimate of 4.2 million excess deaths a year globally from ambient (outdoor) air pollution will surely be raised again. Most of this is from burning fossil fuels, but some is from fires.

    Do the denialists challenge all the specialists in respiratory medicine? The science here is literally breathtakingly simple: breathe in soot and fumes, get sick.

  8. Moz – averaging is how the nustar lead smelter in pt pirie gets away with spikes. Licence says “over 24hrs not to exceed” so “Oops! Stop for n hours to get avgs down”. If you look at readings it amazed me how close they were getting to a breach consistently.

  9. Just in case somebody wants to go the somebserious numbers;

    “Monetisation and Social Return on Investment (SROI)

    “Environmental impact: A toolkit called CAPTOR  (Schmitt et al., 2015) produced for the West Yorkshire context in the UK, a low emission zone, gives users the ability to calculate the QALY gain by reducing Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5) and Nitrous Oxide (NO2/NOx) concentrations. The QALY value per person per tonne of PM2.5 reduced is 0.000044 and reflects general mortality risk, pregnancy complications and lung diseases. At a population level the health value can quickly add up.”

    Alison Freeman, EY, was, until re-locating to Australia, Senior Consultant at NEF Consulting.

    “Full detailed refereced simulation model;
    “3.8 Microsimulation model outputs The microsimulation model outputs will be as follows:
    – Prevalence cases avoided per 100,000 by disease by year 
    – Incidence avoided per 100,000 by disease by year 
    – Cumulative incidence avoided per 100,000 by disease by year 
    – GP, medication, hospital and social costs by disease by year (£million per 100,000) 
    – Costs avoided by year (£million per 100,000)

    “The microsimulation incorporates a sophisticated economic module. The module employs a Markov-type simulation of long-term health benefits and health care costs. It synthesises and estimates evidence on cost-utility analysis. The model is used to project the differences in quality-adjusted life years (QALYs), and direct lifetime healthcare costs over a specified time scale. The direct healthcare costs are presented separately in terms of hospital admissions, general practitioner costs, medication costs and social care costs. Outputs can be discounted for any specific discount rate. This following section provides an overview of the main assumptions of the model.”

    Published May 2018
    PHE publications
    gateway number: 2017858

    Click to access Appendix_1_Technical_Appendix_and_data_inputs.pdf

  10. The crisis is in fast burn now.

    NSW is set to declare a 7 day statewide state of emergency from 9 am Friday. Thousands of people trying to evacuate are trapped on the Snowy Mountains Highway as the road jams up and traffic ceases to flow. There is anecdotal evidence of little to no police coordination of these evacuations by road. In sections which are not yet burnt, what happens to people trapped on the highway if a bush-fire comes their way?

    Meanwhile Scott Morrison says nothing except how wonderful volunteer bush-fighters and other people are being during the crisis. The people may be wonderful but the Federal Government is atrocious. Still, they do next to nothing. Why are all those elements of the entire army, navy and air-force which could assist in this crisis not yet activated? Why is the Army Reserve not yet fully activated (SFAIK)?

    “This guy’s (Scott Morrison) got nothing but words. So until we see some actions… yeah he’s um … I’m not too happy with him.” – Farmer by morning and and firefighter by afternoon.

  11. Some of the armchair chatterers have blamed greenies for stopping back burning. This theory is no longer valid, there are fires reigniting in areas just burnt.

    These are extraordinary conditions demanding a better than ordinary response.

  12. “Why are all those elements of the entire army, navy and air-force which could assist in this crisis not yet activated? Why is the Army Reserve not yet fully activated (SFAIK)?”

    I tend to agree with this. There may be very good explanations. But we would want to hear them.

  13. The entire Parliament should don sackcloth and repent publicly. The ashes will be supplied by nature. Public floggings (as undergone by Henry II) would be deserved but a bit OTT for today’s sensibilities. BTW, the colonial legislature in Massachusetts did subject itself to public penance some years after the Salem witch panic and mistrials.

  14. Akarog: the American Lung Association is out front on the health damage from fossil fuels, as are the royal medical colleges in Brtitain. But elsewhere, including Germany, the profession is curiously muted.

  15. The reason the military aren’t more involved is twofold: firstly they not really set up for large scale fire-fighting, although they are well equipped for disaster releif and other emergeb=ncy work (so we’re all told, anyway). Secondly, and mroe importantly, if the federales declare an emergency and activate their military that would suggest that there’s some kind of problem, perhaps even an unusual problem, and that is not the current line being sold to the public. Remember, this is all completely normal and anyone saying otherwise is an alarmist, probably a warmist, and definitely a bit suspect.

    Including the leader of the NSW young Liberals who has just penned an article for the Guardian suggesting as much. But still hewing to the line that market forces will solve the problem, then doubling down with the suggestion that given time renewable electricity generation might eventually become cheaper than coal. I’m not sure Our Rupert will approve.

  16. James,
    I agree public floggings would be obviously to timid for a generations of young people who have been subject to decades of graphic violence on visual media. In fact public floggings would have been obviously to timid for any generation because before we had first person shooter games in had the bible and grimm fairey tales that were present in many many places to teach young people lessons about the nature of reality.
    I will have to get back with you at a latter date as to what I would suggest in place of public floggings.

  17. Cricket Australia should cancel tomorrow’s Test because 50,000 will be exposed to hazardous particulate matter for 7 h/d. Not original comment, but mightn’t public health vs $$$ get a guernsey once in a while?

  18. “These are extraordinary conditions demanding a better than ordinary response.”

    Yes. Clearly fuel reduction was way insufficient. But its a bit of a problem if the fuel reduction itself constitutes a health hazard.

  19. “Fuel reduction is meaningless when fires reignite in previously burnt areas.”

    How could that even possibly be true? Can you explain further?

  20. Curt, You don’t remember the Fort McMurray wildfire? One the disturbing features of climate change is the marked increase in boreal forest wildfires.

  21. This report asks: “Is Fuel Reduction Burning the Answer?”

    The answer is very complex. The essential answer is that buffer zones and bush near them (and on easy terrain) are almost the only places where hazard reduction can be meaningfully done.

    Developing out from this paper, the clear answer to protecting suburbs and towns is a treeless buffer zone of at least 200m around all suburbs and towns that are adjacent to bush. Imagine a suburb near bush. It needs a ring road around its perimeter: 5 meters footpath, 10 meters road and 5 meters footpath for 20 meters. Then it needs paddocks 180 meters wide to the bush. These paddocks must be managed and kept short by municipal mowing and/or agistment of livestock. Councils and developers must be disciplined (by higher government levels) and not permitted to further develop bush-fire and flood buffer zones. Human structures and infrastructures must be kept well separated from bush in all cases. Highways and major roads should be cleared each side, for 100 meters in each direction, terrain permitting. They thus become major fire breaks.

  22. Robert Singer; a fire can pass through and a little while later wind will blow the dry leaves off the trees providing new fuel for a fire that has been burning inside a log, or an old tree. I read somewhere that there have been cases of multiple fires in the same location, that’s how dry it is.

    The big issue is that apart from the odd shower there has no follow up rain.

  23. Morrison’s precious surplus is gone already, even without needing to evoke the cost of future national standing bodies and specific fire infrastructure.
    The forest industry is gone for a while, and the cost of salvage harvesting, safety clearing and road reconstruction will be enormous over several years. Trees will be falling everywhere for months, the risk of accidental deaths increased
    Tourism will be drastically reduced.
    Honey industry, smoked.
    And farm infrastructure…it barely bears thinking about.
    The Coalition will be buying votes back everywhere.

  24. If a fire can burn two times in one place in fairly quick succession, its because there is too much fuel. So are you saying you want more fuel reduction, less fuel reduction, or no fuel reduction. If fuel reduction is meaningless it sounds like you are arguing for no fuel reduction.

    We see this sentiment a great deal on the left. Which is why only ten years after the terrible fires of 2009 we have to put up with it all over again only worse. Here we see Bob McDonald claiming “its time to stop lighting fires” in 2016. Just a few years after the February 2009 fires. He doesn’t advocate a replacement fuel reduction method. He appeals only to technology to fight the fires better. But we have just seen how impossible it is to control fires once you have that much fuel.

    Its not hard to see who and what has brought us these problems. In the article it was six years after the last bad fires where someone is coming out against fuel reduction. But in this case we are seeing opposition to fuel reduction even as the fires are upon us.

  25. Akarog – Hazard reduction burning is important. It helps reduce ground fire intensity and can reduce the likelihood of fires getting into tree tops but is not an absolute protection; second time fires do happen and fires can get into forest canopies anyway and become catastrophic if conditions are bad enough.

    Robert Singer – Politically it is being used (notably by people who insist we should not be playing politics with the bushfire crisis) to shift attention and blame from climate policy to environmentalists and environmental regulation, despite it being fire authorities – with all the authority necessary – overseeing hazard reduction burning in State Forests and National Parks as well as advising and assisting landholders. Morrison still manages to add fuel to that “greenies are to blame” meme without specifically naming and blaming ‘greenies’ – but the implied (dog whistle) blaming is there, complementing the Right’s leading commentators.

    Bushfire services have had hazard reduction burning high on their agendas but I do not believe that ‘green’ regulation – let alone policies of The Greens – have stopped them. otter than normal and drier than normal winters (with a global warming component) have shrunk the window of opportunity to do them safely – yet a lot of it was still done. We would have had less than 1 month last winter around here and that not free of risk.

    Landholders have been denied permission – not unreasonably – when conditions are likely to see such fires get out of control. Tough laws make people – especially those with little experience with managing fires – that bit more reluctant to chance it even with permits.

  26. ” Fuel reduction is meaningless when fires reignite in previously burnt areas.”

    How could that even possibly be true? Can you explain further? ”

    Just look at how long individually named fires have been burning: some for three months. This clearly can not and does not involve simple outward radiation or unidirectional run from an ignition point…depending on wind direction, fires have returned to ground previously burnt a week or even four previously. Many areas have experienced dry lightning storms since the fires initiation, so reignition is common given the underlying acute drought…and the long term rainfall deficit that is well documented.
    The testimony of local fireys at Wytaliba on the Mann River is an example, when they were hit by the Red Range fire. Not only did they hazard reduce burn twice in the previous twelve months, the bush fire came through at ground level, then the area reburned as crown fire not long afterwards.
    After a relatively modest intensity fire, there is a lot of potential fuel left. Typically there is a lot of leaf fall from canopies, so a new layer of dessicated leaf litter quickly develops.
    The other thing to note is the terminology: forest managers apply ‘hazard reduction’, not ‘hazard elimination’…it’s impossible to achieve the latter, even if you raze the forest, because you’ll have to deal with a post-forest grassland with high combustibility. The terminology really means something.

  27. “There has been restrictions to fuel reduction in many forms.”
    Please supply references.
    Local government land clearing restrictions have been relaxed.
    NSW state forest and NPWS forest managers exceeded their hazard reduction targets for the last year, despite the restriction in safe burning conditions that is in trend over recent years, according to media statements by these agents.

  28. NSW exceeded its target for hazard reduction burning last winter but we got unprecedented fires anyway. This trope has been well covered in the media:

    From the National Parks Association ““National parks and other conservation reserves make up less than 15% of NSW’s total fire prone lands, yet they contribute more than 75% of the areas subject to prescribed burning each year.” … but I see that the parks have burned anyway.

  29. “So I take it Nick….”
    Do you indeed? How so?
    What have I written that could possibly give you that impression?
    What is ‘on the left’ about providing you with factual, as opposed to fanciful, information?
    Wytaliba firefighters are not going to abandon hazard reduction burning …they have always known it is not magic.

  30. “Its easy to exceed targets if the bar is very low.”
    And you know it’s low…how?
    Probably the same way you just know I’m against fuel reduction.
    Please base your claims on some evidence. Assertion is fruitless.

  31. How about we go for effective fire mitigation strategies instead? Picking a technique and demanding more of it regardless of cost or effectiveness isn’t a rational approach. At worst you end up doing something you know is stupid simply because you said you would and you are too cowardly to change your mind (the surplus fetish of various governments, for example)

  32. Sorry for letting Robert Singer through. I’ll be policing new commenters more vigorously from now on. Please, no responses to denialists, trolls etc. Feel free to email me ( if you see any slip through.

  33. Robert Singer,

    Are you sure you aren’t the one trying different names on this blog? Fuel reduction burns are a complex issue. Read a few papers on the topic. The ones linked to above will do for starters.

    It’s a complex problem but you seem to think the answer is simple. That’s a sure sign of someone who does not understand real physical and bio system complexity. So, you look for an easy whipping-boy. Blame the greenies who are not monolithic, who are not numerous, who are not influential and who are not even in charge in most governments at all levels. That simply illustrates how illogical and fact-free your baseless your position is.

  34. NW Tablelands Eucalypt forest that had been subjected to “hazard reduction” 6 weeks previously burned like a furnace late last year. The reason is simple, the trees were already stressed from years of below normal rainfall and had created abnormal amounts of leaf drop and litter. The burn went through and further stressed the trees and new litter was created. The following fire was largely in the treetops, stressed trees, low humidity, high temperatures and gale force winds. The Mayor of Glen Innes has documented this from close up, the fire burnt her property. These fires are not the Dorathea McKellar norm, they are unprecedented in every way and are created by unprecedented climatic conditions.
    Furthermore it is a waste of time and effort, in many ways pathetic, to get Morrison and his whole cohort to acknowledge this

  35. Poselequestion,

    Everything you say there is correct. The system (climate and ecosystem) is passing through a phase boundary and entering a new phase / state.

    It is quite impossible to get science illiterates and market fundamentalists to understand any of this. Natural forces will do that job in the long run by extincting maladaptive and sclerotic political economy systems. Adaptive systems will out-compete maladaptive and sclerotic systems. Currently our political economy is maladaptive and sclerotic. If we can’t change it in time, we will collapse.

  36. Yes its quite clear that market fundamentalism cannot do the job in this instance. So what measure would the two of you suggest to hydrate and de-stress the trees?

  37. Back burning was different “then”.
    The landscape is acting as a kiln;

    “Just how much bound moisture is lost during the drying phase will ultimately depend upon the temperature and relative humidity (RH) of the surrounding air. At 100%?rh, no bound water will be lost. At 0% RH, all the bound water in the wood will be lost, a condition known as ovendry—so-called because a kiln or oven is typically required to completely drive out all moisture.”

    Spoke to a horse’s’ mouth the other day – a back burner employed by rfs.

    They monitor weather stations. Humidity at top of mountain 20kms west of monster gospers fire was 100% early am last week. Fuel – bark leaf litter etc SO dry it was hydrophibic – ie moisture content of fuel load unchanged after 6+ hrs of saturated air.

    I just “thought” (this indicates blind acceptance and not thinking by me) if bark put in 100% humidity albiet non condensing above dew point, it would atill absorb moisture. Citation needed here. But kiln dried = hydrophobic.

    When does fuel load change threshold / bifurcarte from historical record and management practices? 1 yr 30% less moisture? 2yrs? Just this type of litter?
    Novel metrics will need to be developed. And fought over and used for political purposes ad infinitum.

    Independent statutory body with emergency powers needed absolutely.

    Early August when we had first high Temps humidity over 3 days below 10%. I haven’t checked but believe this to be a record for low humidity late winter. And I hope not the “new” abnormal.

  38. KT2, interesting observations.
    I live in the Northern Rivers, where the rolling disaster first took hold. August, September, October experienced below average rain, while temperature maxs were up to 3.5C above the mean…combine this with long wind runs from the SW, drying as they progress from the Southern Ocean, seeing humidities fall below 10% and as low as 5%….and you get the picture. As near kiln-like drying as can be achieved in the open. RH of 1% at 3pm was recorded at Glen Innes AWS on 2/10/19 ! The mean is closer to 50% for that typically dry month…And of course the lowest humidities occurred in the period 11am to 3pm usually, so aren’t logged in the monthly scale data.
    I have never seen so much defoliation in the region prior to the fires [and it continues]. This defoliation of course provides more leaf litter, which is exposed to more sun under the thinned canopies. A simple and horrible feedback.

  39. We do a fair bit of walking, we were up in the foothills of the Barringtons early spring and I was surprised at the “crunchiness” under foot – it’s always quite damp. Normally there are the damp, not unpleasant smells associated with composting forest vegetation – but not this time.

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