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Bushfires: are we doing enough to reduce the human impact?
  1. M Sim
  1. Department of Epidemiology & Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
  1. Correspondence to:
 Associate Prof. M Sim, Unit of Occupational and Environmental Health, Department of Epidemiology & Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Commercial Road, Prahran, Victoria 3181, Australia;

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Physical and psychological health effects in the community

The recent devastating bushfires near Sydney in Australia are a reminder of the potentially serious human health consequences of this type of environmental disaster. There is a considerable research literature documenting the effects of fighting bushfires, such as an increase in airway responsiveness among firefighters,1 but less attention has been paid to the health effects, both physical and psychological, on the communities in the area of bushfires. Evidence is accumulating from studies related to a series of severe bushfires over the past 20 years throughout the southern parts of Australia and in several other countries.

Bushfire is not a new phenomenon and is part of the natural ecology. In many countries, such as Australia, bushfire has been a necessary part of the life cycle for several native trees and plants, some of which have characteristics which promote the spread of fire, such as loose, flammable bark, and combustible oils in their green leaves. The Eucalypt in Australia is a good example. Bushfires also occur regularly in many other areas of the world, the most recent examples being the major series of European fires in the summer of 2000,2 and the 1997 bushfires in Southeast Asia, which burnt an estimated 5.3 million hectares.3 What is new over the past century, is the establishment of human communities in the bush settings where these fires occur. This can lead to greater fuel levels in the bush, increasing both the frequency of bushfires and the at-risk population when fires do occur.

The 2001/2002 series of bushfires in Australia has been particularly widespread and prolonged. Over a two week period, it involved at least 100 separate fires, many of which were started by arson, mainly by juvenile offenders. An area of about 600 000 …

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