In 2019, there was a lot of talk about the destructive wildfires across the West Coast of the US and the Amazon rainforest and whether or not these particular events represented something unprecedented. In the case of Australia, no stranger to bushfires, there’s little question that something has changed this fire season.
For now, rainfall has brought some relief to the fire-ravaged parts of the country and bought time for people to relocate to safer places and get valuable supplies to the people that need it most. However, the fight is far from over and the threat from air pollution remains an immediate threat for thousands.
Just How Big are the Australia Bushfires?
In December 2019, the region broke it’s temperature record twice and the country has seen record low rainfall, alarming scientists, doctors and firefighters alike. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service themselves state that the scale of what they’ve seen over the last few months is truly unprecedented.
At the time of writing, an enormous 6.3 million hectares have burned in New South Wales alone.
To put this into perspective:
Black Saturday Bushfires of 2009 450,000 hectares (commonly cited as among Australia’s all-time worst bushfire disasters)
Amazon rainforest fires of 2019:906,000 hectares
California wildfires of 2018 - 800,000 hectares
California wildfires 2019 - 100,000 hectares
As the bushfire season rages on, the impact is unfortunately enormous, for humans, the environment and the Australian economy alike: Millions of wild animals have perished, more than 2000 houses have been destroyed, at least 25 people have died and nearly 18 million acres have burned throughout Australia. The Insurance Council of Australia estimates the damage to reach at least $700 million (Australian dollars) but predicts this figure will rise further.
Understanding the Smoke Impact
The Director of Environmental Health in New South Wales has stated the area was facing an “unprecedented emergency from a smoke point of view” and that they hadn’t seen “conditions like this in Sydney, certainly in anyone’s memory that I’ve spoken to.”
BreezoMeter captured the movement of the smoke from New South Wales west on January the 6th, which contributed to a significant lowering of the air quality in and around Melbourne:
Fire-related air pollution spreads quickly, unpredictably, crosses borders and lingers for a considerable amount of time depending on weather and climate factors. This means smoke exposure can be extremely dangerous even if a person is far from the actual fire source, or the fire has already passed.
In the case of the Australian bushfires, smoke, ash and dust has turned New Zealand’s glaciers brown, threatening to accelerate glacial melting, and reports state that smoke from the Australia fires has traveled via the jet stream more than 7000 miles to South America.
Wildfire Smoke is a Public Health Problem
Exposure to wildfire smoke represents a significant public health concern. This is because fires contribute dramatically to the levels of particulate matter in the air and exposure to high levels of PM2.5 - even over a few days - can trigger asthma attacks, worsen respiratory and heart conditions and even increase the risk of cancer over time. The young and elderly are particularly affected when the air quality is bad.
Doctors state that there may be unpredictable and lasting consequences for sensitive populations affected by smoke pollution during this season’s bushfires. The Canberra region has now experienced it’s highest air pollution day on record and they have recorded an increase in hospital admissions among elderly patients, asthmatics and sufferers of respiratory issues during this period.
Knowledge is Power
Accurately reporting on air quality through a huge wildfire presents a number of challenges due to the dynamic and unpredictable nature of smoke travel. In particular, providers that rely primarily or only on station sensor data will often struggle to maintain a good service during these times.
BreezoMeter’s multi-data layer approach means we’re uniquely placed to continue providing accurate information even when sensor information becomes unavailable.
This is because our air quality model continues to pull information from numerous data sources such as, real-time traffic data, satellite information, active fires, meteorological inputs and more.
BreezoMeter's Improved Smoke Model
We will never stop improving the way we report air quality. It’s essential for us to ensure that people have access to reliable information when they need it most, especially during a wildfire crisis.
For this reason, we’ve taken a number of steps to improve the refresh rate, granularity and resolution of our worldwide smoke model , which use satellites, land cover, meteorological information and more to understand the location, stage and size of significant wildfires around the world:
Here is a bit more information about the factors we use:
Satellites which make use of hyper-spectral sensors that measure different light bandwidths to detect the presence of fire on earth and help us determine the stage of a fire. The stage of a fire will impact the type of Particulate Matter that is emitted.
For example in the ‘flaming’ stage of the fire there may be more Black Carbon in the air, compared to Brown Carbon during the ‘smouldering’ stage.
Land cover information helps us understand the type of vegetation that is being burned which also affect the air pollution.
We factor meteorological conditions such as rain precipitation and wind to learn more about the direction and level of smoke in a particular area. If the wind is carrying smoke in your direction, this will heavily impact the air quality where you are. Wind travel is one of the key reasons why the air quality can be sometimes much worse in an area surrounding a fire than at the source of the original fire itself.
Finally, the fire model we use takes into account chemical processes which alter the types of pollutant and pollutant levels downwind of a fire.
Preventing Exposure to Harmful Wildfire Smoke
Our mission is to empower anyone in the vicinity of the wildfires in addition to those further away who may still be impacted by smoke, to take more informed decisions by knowing the air quality levels at their location.
Stay indoors with the windows closed and activate an air filtration system (that doesn’t bring in air from the outside.)
Refrain from vigorous physical activity.
Wear a respirator mask to reduce your air pollution intake.
Relocate to a safer location and activate an in-cabin air filter if you’re on the move in your car
Contact your doctor if you feel symptoms are worsening
To keep updated, use our live fire and smoke pollution map or download BreezoMeter's free air quality tracking and fire alerts app here:
Share your Experience with Us
We have confidence in the accuracy of our air quality information but during a fast-changing wildfire event, we are not on the ground while you, our users, are.
If you’d like to query or are confused by the information you’re receiving from us, let us know the location and issue at firstname.lastname@example.org- we'll look into it.
Lastly, our thoughts are of course with anyone affected by the awful and destructive fires raging in Australia right now.