Tomorrow marks the eighth anniversary of the worst bushfires in Australian history – the Black Saturday fires in Victoria. This firestorm killed 173 people, injured 5000, affected 109 communities and damaged or destroyed 3500 buildings. For the doctors, nurses and psychologists called to respond, and who continue to deal with its aftermath, now is a time not only to reflect on lessons of the past, but to prepare for the future. We know climate change is making extreme weather events – bushfires, droughts and heatwaves, storms and floods – more frequent and severe. All of these disasters harm the health of our patients and communities.
Bushfires are devastating, and their impacts and consequences long lasting. As well as causing death, the immediate health risks include radiant heat injuries, dehydration, heat exhaustion, smoke inhalation and trauma. In the aftermath, communities face serious public health issues such as sanitation and water safety, smoke pollution, food insecurity, infection control and access to basic accommodation, healthcare and community services. Sadly, in the longer term, people affected by bushfire disasters are also at higher risk of many ongoing physical and mental health problems. They also face the social and economic costs of rebuilding homes, communities and infrastructure.
Health professionals have a responsibility – to our patients and communities – to speak up on issues that threaten human health. It’s why leading medical organisations are describing climate change as a “public health emergency”, mirroring the experiences of doctors and nurses on the frontline. So, just as we advocated for tobacco control, health professionals are now mobilising to demand urgent action to mitigate climate change in order to reduce the risk of the tragedy and devastation of another Black Saturday.
Dr Kate Charlesworth is a Public Health Physician in NSW and works with the Climate and Health Alliance.