The 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season, which stretched from June 2019 to March 2020, devastated portions of the country, scorching an estimated 46 million acres, destroying more than 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes), and killing at least 34 people. The summer months of December and January were particularly devastating as hundreds of fires burned and States of Emergency were declared in New South Wales, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory.
Wildfires occur every summer in Australia (typically peaking in February), but the scale of these seasonal fires were unprecedented. A severe drought, which led into the hottest and driest year on record, combined with sustained high temperatures and windy conditions, created an exceedingly dangerous fire situation across many areas of the country. Hard-hit areas included New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, and South Australia.
Beyond the threat from high temperatures and burn-related injuries, wildfires can exacerbate chronic health issues such as asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory problems. For those with such conditions, fires deal a harsh combination of smoke, ash, dust, and other particulates in the air. Smoke from the wildfires inundated southern Australia – in December, the smoke in Sydney was recorded at 11 times over the hazardous limit – and was reported to have reached New Zealand. Hospital admissions dramatically increased in the smoke-affected areas, with some patients suffering from asthma for the first time in their lives. People were encouraged to stay inside and advised to wear masks to filter out unhealthy particulates when outside.
Direct Relief’s Response
Australia, an industrialized country with a universal healthcare system, had an adequate in-country supply of the medical goods needed to care for people affected by the fires at local hospitals and clinics. As a result, requests for emergency assistance with health-related products mainly focused on protective equipment, particularly N95 masks needed to support frontline workers and communities being inundated with smoke. A need for first aid and basic diagnostic products for use in conducting outreach services was also identified.
Direct Relief delivered eight emergency medical shipments in response to the fires, all of which were transported on a charitable basis by Qantas Airlines. These shipments went to the Australian Red Cross, Rotary Club Melbourne, Victoria State Emergency Services, Convoy of Hope Australia, Team Rubicon Australia, and Qantas Airways.
A total of 430,000 N95 respirator masks were provided in the emergency shipments. The masks were then distributed by partner facilities and organizations to:
• National and state health authorities
• State emergency management agencies
• First responders including fire fighters, police, and ambulance crews
• Healthcare facilities and providers
• Schools and community groups
In addition to protecting people from heavy smoke during the fires, the masks were also used to protect public health workers and residents when returning to affected communities after the fires were extinguished. People were not only at risk of injury by falling branches and from sharp or smoldering objects hidden in rubble, but asbestos, fire-damaged septic systems, and chemically treated wood were identified for having negative respiratory health impacts.
After the fires were contained, a number of the N95 masks were provided to the Department of Health and Human Services, midwifery clinics located across the country, and first responders fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also included in the relief shipments were 12 Direct Relief Emergency Medical Packs. These portable ruggedized backpacks are filled with medical products to help address community health needs in an emergency. Each pack contains supplies and equipment designed to meet a variety of prevalent disaster-related medical issues, including infection control, diagnostics, trauma care, and personal protection.
Two of the backpacks were sent to the Australian Red Cross and 10 went to Team Rubicon Australia for use when conducting medical outreach services in remote and hard-to-reach areas. Outreach services were conducted in New South Wales and on Kangaroo Island – known for its incredible biodiversity and wildlife sanctuaries – where fires scorched over 800 square miles.
Financial Assistance through Grant Awards
Due to the fight against COVID-19, Direct Relief’s awarding of cash grants to assist with wildfire recovery efforts has been delayed. However, with COVID-19 cases decreasing in Australia, Direct Relief is planning to move forward with a number of cash grant awards.
The financial assistance will be mainly focused on psychosocial support, particularly targeting youth and pre-school kids who have experienced, or are at-risk of experiencing, emotional distress related to the wildfires. Broader community health projects will also be considered for recovery grants.