Scientists find wildfires increase contraction of severe COVID-19; Sydney burns off during lockdown

American scientists have found wildfires are a key link in those who die and suffer severe COVID-19 symptoms.

A study posted in scientific journal Science Advances found increases in fine particle matter found in bushfire smoke increased COVID-19 deaths in California, Oregon and Washington.

Fine particle matter (PM2.5) comes from sources such as cars, fossil fuel plants and agriculture, and is linked to a number of respiratory illnesses and complications such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and heart disease - all underlying conditions that mimic or exacerbate COVID-19.

When inhaled, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is a dangerous pollutant as it enters the bloodstream through the lung tissue.

'Fine particulate matter air pollution can be an additional vehicle for spreading the virus even faster,' Francesca Dominici, co-author of the study and professor of biostatistics, population and data science at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, told CNN.

Chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, Dr Albert Rizzo, state air pollution from wildfire smoke is likely to cause inflammation in the lungs.

'The particulate matter is what leads the airways to be a very fertile ground for uninvited infection like the COVID virus to get into our airway," said Dr Rizzo in a CNN interview.

'The immune system is only geared up to try to fight the effects of a particulate matter and now it has a virus that it has to trigger against as well.

'It's a dangerous combination.

'Right now, considering that we are seeing an increase in risks and cases due to the Delta variant, and we're already getting wildfires, that's going to be concerning' she said.

Along with a direct death toll of 43, researchers at Stanford University estimated roughly 1200 to 3000 excess deaths were a direct result from inhaling PM 2.5 during the 2020 USA wildfires that scorched more than 10 million acres across the Western states of the US.

It was further noted the fires exhibited extremely unusual behaviour including rare rotational patterns within the fire and strange towering clouds.

The report utilised satellite images along with public data on COVID-19 cases and deaths in three of the worst effected Western states - California, Oregon and Washington - finding there was strong evidence the more smoke and soot there was, the more there were cases and deaths from COVID-19.

The finding further showed that if the PM 2.5 levels stayed higher for 28 consecutive days, cases rose by nearly 12 percent and deaths by more than eight percent.

Professor of environmental health at Emory University told CNN the study was 'very important'.

'This is among those first studies that really report the link between particulate matter coming out of the 2020 wildfires in the United States and how they contribute to the exacerbation on COVID-19 cases and deaths'.

'Add the wildfire ash and soot to the air quality, it does make respiratory issues much more likely to occur'. she said.

At higher risk to wildfire smoke is people with heart or lung disease, the elderly, children and babies with another recent study sending children ages 19 and younger to emergency rooms with respiratory problems at higher rates than ever before.

Epidemiologist at Scripps Institution, Tarik Benmarhnia, said 'Kids inhale way more air than us, and their respiratory system is still being developed'.

'So they're way more vulnerable than adults and it could be a very dangerous situation'.

It's not just the toxicity of wildfire smoke, but also what the fire burns. Once the fire reaches a community and chars houses, it burns materials such as plastic that contain hazardous chemicals' he said.

The latest study in reference to the COVID-19 virus may be groundbreaking news, however, it is no secret smoke from bushfires can create respiratory illness.

A study conducted in March of 2020 by the Australian Government titled 'Health impacts of bushfire smoke exposure in Australia' clearly outlining adverse health issues including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, cardiac arrest with extending health issues beyond the cardiorespiratory system including low birth weights (24) and pro-inflammatory effects (25).

Further included was an Australian study examining fire fighters' exposures during prescribed burns that found while the mercury concentrations were not high enough for mercury poisoning, the cumulative impacts remain largely unknown (26).

With Sydney currently in an alleged COVID-19 Delta breakout with the city in stage 5 lockdown and under martial law, it is extraordinary the Northern Beaches Council in conjunction with the Fire and Rescue NSW, the NSW Rural Fire Service and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service has proceeded with scheduled hazard reduction burns.

Fuel-reduction burning and back burning is meant to be used as a last-resort measure to stop wildfire from burning out specific areas.

According to the Northern Beaches Council's website, prescribed burning (otherwise known as back burning) is conducted to a given prescription which is created when certain weather and site conditions fall within a set range.

A prescribed burn or 'controlled burning' is usually done in the cooler months to reduce fuel build up and slow the path of a summer bush fire.

A documented and serious side effect of back burning is smoke pollution, which fumigates close communities.

The idea behind prescribed, planned, controlled or hazard-reduction burning is to remove potential hazards of fine surface fuels such as kindling and leaf litter to diminish the intensity of a potential fire.

Prescribed burning is however known to be impractical because of the risks, including uncontrollable fires sustained by heavy fuel loads become flammable in dry conditions.

Due to these concerns, many alternatives can be implemented without burning including using herbivores and by thinning vegetation, including burning the debris in portable furnaces known to have low smoke emissions.

The question then must be asked why these prescribed back burns proceeded and what emergency constituted their roll out.

According to Inspector Ben Sheperd from the NSW Rural Fire Service, the decision to back burn was focused on weather-dependant hazard reduction, stating the fire service seized an opportunity thanks to recent wet weather.

Mr Shepard however made no comment on whether the fire service factored in the COVID-19 respiratory virus within the impact of the smoke.

'Reduction burns are very much weather dependant and each year there is only a small window of opportunity, as few as 20 or 30 days, where prescribed burns can be safely and effectively conducted' he said.

'Significant rainfall in recent months across much of the State forced the postponement of a number of hazard reduction burns due to the damp conditions.

'The last two weeks has seen the first opportunity since April to undertake hazard reduction burning in the Greater Sydney area.

'The burn undertaken at Oxford Falls across recent days provides protection to hundreds of properties and people in the Belrose, Terrey Hills, Elanora, and Oxford Falls areas along with providing a strategic fire advantage for areas such as Collaroy Plateau, Wheeler Heights, Cromer and Beacon Hill providing further protection for 1000’s more homes.

'Hazard reduction is an important tool in reducing the impact of serious bush fires which can have devastating effects on entire communities.

'Hazard reductions are planned well in advance, with a number of considerations such as the weather, resources, and potential impact on the community.

'There is a delicate balance between ensuring this important work is completed, and limiting the effects of smoke.

'The effects of smoke from hazard reduction are unavoidable, and while agencies work together to minimise the impact, there are steps people can take to reduce their exposure to smoke, such as to stay indoors, close windows and doors, and follow your health plan.

'It is also advised if you have a health issue that may worsen due to smoke, take action early to reduce your exposure and follow your normal health plan.

'NSW RFS works closely with NSW Health, Asthma Australia and the Environment Protection Agency to ensure we minimise the impact of smoke on communities'.

We have contacted the Northern Beaches Council, the Fire and Rescue NSW, the NSW Rural Fire Service and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service for comment.

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