Australian authorities were caught off-guard during the Black Summer of 2019-20, when bushfire smoke smothered several cities.
Severe asthmatic Ryan Harris of Queanbeyan in northern New South Wales remembers seeing and smelling smoke coming into his ward in the Canberra Hospital, even in intensive care.
“It was pretty nasty,” he says.
Worried doctors sent him home, where the air was potentially clearer than the hospital.
Harris was in and out of the hospital that summer, with asthma triggered by exposure to bushfire smoke. He was in a hospital bed for two to three weeks in December and again for a week in January. Across the eastern states, hospital admissions spiked, as bushfire smoke worsened many chronic conditions.
In South Australia, alarmed residents in Adelaide called triple zero to report a fire on 10 January 2020 they awoke to find the city filled with smoke.
Kangaroo Island had been burning for weeks, and in the eastern states for months.
Rather than issuing warnings ahead of time, official SA Health advice came late: stay indoors, close windows and doors, avoid inhaling smoke.
Fortunately, the problem was short lived in Adelaide.
But when smoke lingered longer in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology started experimenting with a more proactive and sophisticated approach.
Building on a system originally designed to manage planned burns in Victoria, they combined weather forecasts, satellite data and air quality measurements in real-time to predict where the smoke would go next. And “bushfire smoke forecasting” was born.
At the CSIRO Climate Science Centre in Melbourne, principal research scientist Dr Fabienne Reisen is “really happy with the whole system” and wants to keep working on it. She hopes to refine the modelling, to improve the quality and spatial resolution of the forecasts, with funding from the Australian Climate Service.
If her plan gets the go-ahead, the system would also include public health messaging, “so that we can tell people when it’s going to be smoky, what areas are going to be impacted and for how long, and when conditions are going to improve”.
“Then people can take their preventative measures to minimise exposure and also understand when they need to close up their houses and when they can open up again, once the smoke has cleared the area,” Reisen says.
In the meantime, BOM has funding to put the existing Air Quality Forecasting system (AQFx) into operation and make the new Australian Smoke Dispersion System (ASDS) available to emergency management agencies across the country.
“The Bureau of Meteorology was awarded funding from the Disaster Risk Reduction Package earlier this year and is currently discussing with National Emergency Management Australia (NEMA) around the scope and approach to operationalise a national smoke dispersion system,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
“The Australian Smoke Dispersion System (ASDS) project has developed from the needs of state-based agencies to track smoke, and by extension potential impacts of smoke from bushfires and planned burn operations. The ASDS product is intended to be an interactive map available to emergency management agencies in all states and territories.”
The existing AQFx system provides six-day fire weather forecasts, 24–60 hour detailed air pollution forecasts, and next-day prescribed burn smoke forecasts for Victoria and more recently, New South Wales.
In Victoria, air quality forecasters at the Environment Protection Authority access the system each day to produce the daily forecasts available on the EPA website.
EPA Victoria air scientist Jason Choi says “AQFx is a key tool and extensively used to guide and inform forecasts during bushfires by EPA Victoria.”
“Better forecasts also mean better information being provided to the Victorian community which enables them to be more proactive in managing their exposure to air pollution.
“It’s already a very good system, but in terms of future innovation, more automation of the data inputs and greater resolution in the model could be options. It is important to remember that some of these do mean greater computing time and power is required.”
Choi says he would recommend the system to EPAs in other states, noting CSIRO has also provided training in the use of AQFx to other states and territories.
Since late 2021, AQFx has also been feeding into the app AirRater, to help fill in the gaps for the many Australians living far from air quality monitors.
Researchers at the University of Tasmania developed the app to help individuals learn how air quality affects their own health and better manage their symptoms.
It collates information about smoke, pollen and temperature in the local area while users track symptoms such as sneezing, itchy eyes or shortness of breath.
Over time, AirRater helps users identify their triggers and sends notifications when those conditions are present at their location.
Meanwhile, Asthma Australia has been developing another air quality app called AirSmart to help people reduce their exposure to air pollution.
Former AirSmart manager Alex Swain says the success of a six week pilot project in late 2022 has galvanised plans for a national rollout, with a focus on summer 2023-24 (or potentially sooner, given sufficient funding). She’s currently manager of programs and partnerships.
The journey to national air quality forecasting
After the Black Saturday bushfire in February 2009, the Victorian Royal Commission made a series of recommendations including that the state fund and commit implementing a long-term program of prescribed burning based on an annual rolling target of five per cent minimum of public land.
This led to AQFx. In 2019, Black Summer took hold. The subsequent Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements contained 80 recommendations including:
- Nationally consistent air quality information, health advice and interventions, and for governments to develop “close to real-time real-time, nationally consistent air quality information, including consistent categorisation and public health advice.”
- National Air Quality Forecasting Capability, where governments should “develop national air quality forecasting capabilities, which include broad coverage of population centres and apply to smoke and other airborne pollutants”.
AirSmart was initially motivated by a national survey of experiences during the 2019-20 bushfires “that indicated people wanted organisations like Asthma Australia and the governments to do more to help them to navigate exposure to air pollution during these intense and long periods of smoke,” Swain says.
“The monitoring and the reporting at the time of the crisis was not good enough, so people were stuck in their homes for days and weeks on end.
“We were unsure whether it was safe to leave our homes, especially when we had asthma or our children had asthma.”
Fast forward to 2023 and Australia now has a nationally consistent method of reporting air quality. It’s hourly, rather than daily.
“But more needs to be done to provide people with easy access to air quality data, that’s user friendly, that’s localised, accurate and relevant, so that we can make appropriate lifestyle decisions to minimise or avoid our exposure to pollutants,” Swain says.
“We want to know, do we have to stay inside and close the windows? Is it safe to go and walk our dog? Is it safe just to duck out and do the shopping, can I go out and do some exercise?”
The app was downloaded more than 16,000 times in the six weeks of the pilot project, in winter when the air quality was good and there were no bushfires.
“We’re pretty stoked with those findings considering it was a pilot,” Swain says.
“Imagine the reach and interest of AirSmart when air quality may be poor, when we experience poor air quality events or when our need for air quality information is high on our priority list.”
Research found the 19 weeks of continuous fire activity in 2019-20 caused 429 premature deaths, 3320 hospital admissions for cardiovascular and respiratory conditions and 1523 presentations to emergency departments for asthma.
That research also calculated the health costs of smoke exposure amounting to $1.95 billion.
But for individuals like severe brittle asthmatic Ryan Harris of Queanbeyan, smoke inhalation can be fatal.
The smoke irritates the lung tissue and wind pipes, creating more mucus. He says it can “trigger a full-blown asthma attack straight up [or] decondition your lungs over a period of time, if you’re living in that cloud of smoke for weeks on end.”
But even Canberra Hospital was not safe from the smoke.
“It even got to the point where the doctor sent me home, thinking that it would actually be better at home than in hospital, with the smoke that was actually getting through the systems, through the doors and through the air conditioning system,” Harris recalls.
“At home, we’ve got a reasonably new five- or six-year old house with double-glazing and we had the wet towels around the doors and a very expensive air purifier on 24/7 you know, trying to combat the air pollution and the smoke at the time.”
At the start of the summer, Harris says, there were no warnings or forecasts about incoming bushfire smoke, so he and his wife would “monitor every Facebook page or feed or state government website” for air quality data. Then, “about halfway through, the government started putting out alerts, once a day or twice a day.”
The 42-year-old father of two says accurate, timely bushfire smoke forecasting would be “fantastic”.
“It would be very beneficial,” he says.
“I’d absolutely be looking at that every day and planning my day around it.”
The question is, will the various national bushfire smoke forecasting systems be ready for the next big fires?
Will access to the information be restricted to government departments and emergency management agencies, or will it be integrated into apps for all to see?
While flooding has reduced the immediate risk of bushfire until now, the extra rainfall has encouraged the growth of vegetation, which will fuel fires in the future.
“There’s so much growth now and when it dries out, there’s a high bushfire risk again, unfortunately,” CSIRO’s Fabienne Reisen says, keen to get moving on system upgrades.
“We need to be ready, with a bushfire smoke forecasting system that people are comfortable to use and that has the best information possible.”
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