The first week of the Royal Commission into Australia’s horrific 2019/20 fire season heard that almost 500 people were killed by the fires and smoke inhalation, and that the fire crisis is “not a one-off event”.
Menzies Institute for Medical Research environmental health researcher Associate Professor Fay Johnston told the Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements that research and modelling indicated there were 445 deaths from smoke inhalation directly attributable to the ‘Black Summer’ crisis, in addition to the 33 people killed by the blazes.
“If you already have asthma, if you already have chronic lung disease and you inhale some smoke, even a modest amount of air pollution that might not bother anyone else, that can make that condition worse and in some people it will make it bad enough to send them to hospital,” Associate Professor Johnston said.
Modelling Associate Professor Johnston worked on also suggested up to A$2 billion (£1.08 billion) in health system costs were incurred as a result of the fire crisis.
Smoke blanketed large areas in Australia for several weeks at a time during the crisis. An air quality index above 200 is considered hazardous and the national capital, Canberra, recorded air quality ratings of up to 5185.
The Commission also heard the fires triggered insurance claims worth A$2.26 billion (£1.22 billion) as a result of property loss.
Threatened Species Commissioner Sally Box told the inquiry the fires were an “ecological disaster”, leaving 119 animal species requiring “urgent management intervention” if they are to avoid extinction.
The Commission heard that research by Australia’s peak science body, the CSIRO, shows the fire danger is very likely to increase in the future for many regions of Australia, made worse by more frequent and more severe extreme heat events.
“These dangerous weather conditions for bushfires are likely to occur at least in part due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions," senior CSIRO scientist Dr Helen Cleugh said.
On the first day of the Commission, Bureau of Meteorology head of climate monitoring Dr Karl Braganza warned “this isn't a one-off event that we're looking at here”.
Dr Braganza said that since 2003, “every jurisdiction in Australia has seen some really significant fire events that have challenged what we do to respond to them and have really challenged what we thought fire weather looked like preceding this period”.
“The frequency of these events, if we look at the historical record, seems to be increasing,” he said.