Increased air pollution from bushfires is among the rising threats facing NSW residents as global warming makes blazes more likely, according to a new report by the Climate Council.
The council said air quality levels were 50 times worse than usual in the Sydney Basin during the Blue Mountains bushfires a year ago, with NSW Health reporting 228 people attending hospital with breathing difficulties.
Ambulance staff treated 778 other individuals, while the number of asthma patients seeking hospital help more than doubled.
“Bushfires can have all sorts of impacts other than people losing their homes,” said Lesley Hughes, a professor of biological sciences at Macquarie University and author of the report.
The Climate Council survey said the state had 27 significant bushfires since 1926, with thousands of homes lost and 116 lives. Last October’s fires in the Blue Mountains and elsewhere in NSW killed two people and destroyed 222 houses and damaged 168 others.
The report echoed findings by fire researchers that point to more risk of bushfires in NSW and elsewhere in south-eastern Australia as the climate warms. Autumn and winter rainfall is also on the long-term decline.
Such conditions “prime the fuel to be drier and therefore more flammable”, Professor Hughes said.
The lengthening of the fire season is evident again this year with 55 local government areas starting their fire danger period prior to the statutory October 1 date, the report noted.
Between July and October 19, NSW Rural Fire Service volunteers attended almost 4900 bush and grass fire incidents, a spokesman said.
RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons last week said authorities were adjusting activities in response to climate change, including coping with a shrinking “window of opportunity” for hazard reduction burns.
“As the risks get greater for wildfires, the possibilities for preparing get reduced,” Professor Hughes said.
The threat of air pollution from bushfires will also worsen as fire crews are forced to intensify burning off during favourable periods, she said. Also, as Sydney’s population continues to swell, more people will be living in the so-called urban-rural interface where those hazard reduction efforts are taking place, she said.
Bureau of Meteorology officials, meanwhile, told Senate estimates on Monday that Australia was on a clear warming path, with temperatures rising between 0.71 and 0.76 degrees since 1960, depending on the methods used.
The report also said resources will be stretched, citing research last year by the National institute of Economic and industry Research for the United Firefighters Union of Australia.
That study found national numbers would need to rise from 11,000 in 2010 to 14,000 in 2020 and 17,000 by 2030 to keep up with population growth. When climate change is added, the necessary crews would have to increase by additional 2000 staff by 2020 and 5000 by 2030.
“These estimates are likely to be conservative because they do not account for the potential lengthening of the fire season in addition to increased fire weather,” the Climate Council’s report said. The NIEIR study also predicted declining numbers of volunteers.
The RFS, though, said there is no indication that volunteer numbers are on the wane, noting a jump in sign-ups in the wake of last year’s Blue Mountains fires.
“The NSW RFS is the world’s largest volunteer firefighting agency,” a spokesman told Fairfax Media. “The service’s volunteer numbers continue to go from strength to strength – we currently have 74,000 volunteer members, up from 72,000 last year.”
“There has been no decline in NSW RFS volunteer numbers in recent years,” he said.
The Climate Council will release fire reports on other states, including South Australia, to be released on November 3 and Victoria on December 1.