Australian researchers have estimated the cost of smoke-related health impacts caused by the damaging 2019-20 summer bushfire season totalled almost $2 billion, and warned that climate change was likely to make future summers even more damaging.
The cost estimate was published in the journal Nature Sustainability, based on the total health cost of smoke caused by the 2019-20 summer bushfires, including premature deaths, hospital admissions and respiratory problems.
The researchers found that due to the summer bushfires there had been an estimated 429 smoke-related premature deaths, 3,230 hospital admissions for heart and breathing disorders, and 1,523 emergency department visits for asthma.
Throughout the 2019-20 summer bushfires, thick smoke blanketed large portions of Australia’s south-east regions, with some Australian cities ranking among the worst in the world on air pollution. The researchers found that the ACT, New South Wales, Victoria and parts of Queensland experienced some of their worst ever levels of smoke pollution during the fire season.
The research will have relevance across other parts of the world, with scenes similar to those in Sydney, Canberra and large parts of Australia’s east coast now being replicated in the US state of California.
The cost of these health impacts was estimated to be $1.95 billion, which was almost four times the next highest estimate of $556 million in costs caused by the 2002-03 bushfire season. The researchers estimated that the 2019-20 bushfires were almost 10-times more costly than the average bushfire season over the last 10-years, which stands at $211 million.
These costs do not cover other substantial economic impacts caused by the bushfires, including the loss of thousands of homes and businesses, many of which are still recovering, or the loss of tourist income to bushfire hit regions and the environmental damage caused at an unprecedented scale.
More than 8 million hectares of eucalypt forest was destroyed over a bushfire season that lasted more than six months, with the World Wildlife Fund estimating that more than three billion Australian animals were either killed or displaced by the fires.
The researchers said that the lengthening bushfire seasons around the world were becoming economically ‘unsustainable’.
“In flammable landscapes around the globe, longer fire seasons with larger, more severely burnt areas are causing social and economic impacts that are unsustainable,” the research paper says.
“Such extreme fire events are increasingly stressing socio-ecological systems that were already poorly adapted to coexisting with fire-prone environments.”
Head of the Respiratory Molecular Pathogenesis Group at the University of Technology Sydney, Professor Brian Oliver, said that the total health costs of the bushfire smoke could be even higher than the $1.95 billion estimate, due to factors not covered by the researchers, and that those costs would ultimately be carried by the community.
“The study is a very sophisticated estimation of the actual cost of the 2019/2020 bushfires. The costs are based on actual health care costs and an estimated 429 premature deaths. The actual costs will be much higher as the future health events which are not known were not included in this study,” Professor Oliver said.
“As a country what this means for us is that if we have more bushfire events of the magnitude which was experienced in 2019/2020 the health and economic costs will affect everyone in Australia, through either higher taxes or direct health effects.”
The health costs of the bushfires were estimated by a team of researchers from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania, the University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales and the University of Melbourne
The researchers said that the health cost of the bushfires would continue to worsen as climate change works to make future bushfire seasons more dramatic.
“The global trend of longer fire seasons with more extreme fire weather is leading to fires that are historically unusually frequent, severe and, in some cases, economically destructive, a trend that is likely to worsen according to climate projections,” the researchers said.
“Managing wildfire smoke is thus a global policy challenge that requires multiple strategies ranging from global climate stabilization to local-scale fuel management. The direct and manifest health impacts of wildfires on large human populations are a powerful reason to improve climate change mitigation and achieve sustainable wildfire management,” the researchers added.