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Australia Wildfires

A Million Masks: Direct Relief Doubles Contribution of N95 (P2) Particulate Respirators for Smoke-Filled Australia

Firefighter Kurt Hill of Albion Park Rural Fire Service loads 15,000 Direct Relief N95/P2 masks in Picton, New South Wales, Australia. The area has been seriously impacted by bushfires and 30 homes have been lost in the surrounding area since 2019.  (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)
Firefighter Kurt Hill of Albion Park Rural Fire Service loads 15,000 Direct Relief N95/P2 masks in Picton, New South Wales, Australia. The area has been seriously impacted by bushfires and 30 homes have been lost in the surrounding area since 2019. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

Direct Relief today increased its commitment to help Australians breathe amid the worst bushfire season in the country’s recorded history. After delivering 430,000 N95 respirators (masks) to Australia since Jan. 6, the humanitarian medical aid group has allocated and is prepared to deliver up to a total of 1 million masks if needed.

Direct Relief has reallocated the masks from the stockpile it maintains to help protect Californians during periods of heavy wildfire smoke. Last week, the group ordered an additional 1.5 million breathing masks to be manufactured, both to backstop any additional needs in Australia and to prepare for the 2020 wildfire season in the Western United States.

While people in some of the world’s most polluted cities have long worn breathing masks (albeit often ineffective dust or surgical masks), widespread distribution of breathing masks in places like California and Australia had never been a consideration in the past. But years of devastating wildfires amid the warmest decade in recorded human history has changed the calculus of needs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the California Department of Public Health have issued extensive guidance about health risks from wildfire, including the type and proper use of respirators as protection. Persons with asthma or other respiratory or heart conditions face elevated risks from particulate matter in wildfire smoke. The N95 designation used in the U.S. is a P2 designation in Australia.

California’s Stockpile Diverted for Australia

Particulate masks staged in Direct Relief's California warehouse. (Tony Morain/Direct Relief)
Particulate masks staged in Direct Relief’s California warehouse. (Tony Morain/Direct Relief)

Direct Relief’s experience responding to a series of largest-ever wildfires in its home state of California in recent years identified a sharp need for a ready-for-immediate-distribution stockpile of N95/P2 masks, which can filter tiny particles out of the air when fitted properly and are recommended by public health authorities. That analysis led Direct Relief last year to contract manufacture N95 masks in sufficient volumes to meet fire-related demand spikes of the type that had consistently exceeded availability and caused shortages when most needed.

“The historic fires in California have made everyone so keenly aware of the air-quality health risks that massive fires cause, as well as the frustration and concern of being advised to use particular types of masks that get stocked out fast and are unavailable,” said Direct Relief President and CEO Thomas Tighe. “Our Aussie friends are, unfortunately, encountering the exact scenario that prompted Direct Relief’s stockpiling plan, so of course our team and supporters have been thankful to be able to pitch in.”

Since shipping the first batch of masks on Jan. 6 via air transportation donated by Qantas, Direct Relief has delivered 430,000 masks to Australia, of which more than 260,000 have been distributed to Australian partners.

Among the partners receiving the most masks to date are the Australian Red Cross, local Rotary Clubs, and Convoy of Hope, which are in turn distributing them to people needing them in local communities. Direct Relief has also distributed masks to Surf Life Saving Australia for its lifeguard members, RSPCA for volunteers in the field rescuing animals, and local brigades of the Rural Fire Service. The orange-colored masks supplied by Direct Relief are provided at no charge to local organizations to distribute onward for free.

N95/P2 masks only work if they are fitted closely to the face. If retail stores carry N95/P2 masks at all, most only carry them in one size. Direct Relief has delivered more than 110,000 small masks to Australia, where if fitted properly they may be used by people with smaller faces.

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