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The Catastrophic Impact of Wildfires on the Environment and Human Health

Immediate action is needed to limit greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change as the Southern Hemisphere moves into wildfire season.

The New England Journal of Medicine published a report which analysed numerous studies on wildfires over the past 20 years.

It stated that global climate change is fuelling the three key elemental conditions for wildfires - fuel, oxygen and an ignition source.

Rainfall patterns are becoming more unpredictable, droughts are increasing, and temperatures are rising, resulting in drier vegetation susceptible to ignition.

Climate change has affected wildfires in two specific ways. One is an increase in the risk of wildfires, and the other is a prolongation of fire seasons.

The number of days with extreme fire weather have become 54% more frequent at the global level.

Yet, the enormous impacts of climate change on wildfire season don’t end there.

There is a high concern for increased morbidity, mortality, and mental health impacts, as well as efforts to protect and care for injured wildlife and flora.

In Australia for example, the mean temperature has increased by 1.4 degrees Celsius since 1910.

CSIRO Scientists agree that climate change is exacerbating the key fire risk factors with south-eastern Australia more prone to high wind on extremely hot and dry summer days making the area a particular concern.

Nephrologist and Chairperson for Doctors for the Environment Australia Victorian Committee, Dr Katherine Barraclough said the smoke from bushfires is made of many gases and particles and can have a detrimental effect on human health.

“One of the most damaging particles to human health is called PM2.5. It’s incredibly small and can be inhaled deep into the lungs,” Dr Barraclough said.

PM2.5 can cause irritation of the eyes, the nose and throat. These microscopic particles can also cause coughing, wheezing and other respiratory symptoms even in those who have never had a respiratory condition.

For people with underlying respiratory conditions, PM2.5 can exacerbate symptoms.

“The really worrying thing about PM2.5 is that it’s so fine, it can be absorbed into the bloodstream and from there it can lead to inflammation, affect the heart and sometimes trigger heart attacks.”

“It has also been associated with strokes and blood clots,” Dr Barraclough said.

However, the evident catastrophe can be mitigated by slowing and reversing the accumulation of CO₂ and other greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Failing to keep global warming under 2°C, the minimal goal of the Paris Agreement, carries a dangerous price of unprecedented wildfire risks across the globe and impacts on human health and an already delicate ecosystem.

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