Bushfires leave property managers gasping for air

3 Nov 2020 Ross Castle


Health experts say new policies are needed to address the unprecedented length of exposure to smoke experienced by the public during a bushfire season. CCI Senior Risk Consultant Peter Kirby identifies some of the significant risks that appeared in the aftermath of the 2019/ 2020 season’s bushfires and explains why they should be taken seriously. In a discussion with Occupational Hygienist Denny Bolatti, Managing Director of Trinitas Group, he outlines steps to reduce these risks and warns that organisations may need to look twice at their maintenance programs.

“Bushfires have the potential to create hazards that can expose people to risks, long after a fire has burnt out,” says Peter Kirby.

“Smoke from bushfires can travel many hundreds of kilometres. Air pollution, smoke, and asbestos may pose dangerous threats to public health.”

In Sydney during 2019, there were 81 days of hazardous air quality— a number that surpassed the combined total for the decade before. In the same year, Canberra had to deal with its worst air quality ever recorded because of smoke from Australia’s south eastern bushfires.

“Pollution levels in Canberra were 26 times above levels considered hazardous, and people breathed it in for several weeks,” he says.

“In fact, the plumes from Australia’s fires were so vast that smoke affected places as far away as Chile and Argentina.”

Peter also saw the Australian National University join forces with the Social Research Centre to conduct a study about how the bushfire crisis had affected people.

“Their findings were eye-watering,” he adds “revealing that around 80 per cent of the population was impacted in some way. More than half of Australians were feeling anxious about fires and the damage it caused. There’s an emotional and psychological impact that is sometimes overlooked.”

Smoke pollution is a hazard that can bring long-term health impacts

Global warming is increasing temperatures and in turn this is a contributing factor to the ‘fuelling’ of a greater number of fires. As the landscape heats up, the higher the risk if fire ignition under certain conditions. In 2019, we witnessed a visibly disturbing smog across the sky which persisted for some time across the ACT as a result of fires. The lingering smoke significantly affected air quality in Canberra and surrounding regions.

“An upsurge in hospital presentations for respiratory problems followed, with the media reporting a spike in asthma-related illnesses,” says Peter Kirby.

“Medical professionals warned that poor air quality can cause strokes, heart attacks and other respiratory illnesses. Poor air quality and smoke can definitely aggravate existing heart conditions or bronchial illness. More people are exposed to bush fire smoke each year and need to be aware of the health risks and mitigating measures they can take.”

Health authorities have advised users of air conditioners to switch their units to ‘recycle’ or ‘recirculate’ during smoky conditions.

“This will help to reduce the chance of smoke penetrating your building,” explains Peter.

“Heavy smoke days present organisations with a range of challenges. Schools may need to reschedule sporting events, and other outdoor activities may need reconsideration.”

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has advised unions, and trade and labour councils of the risks of heat and smoke exposure, providing new guidelines to address threats to workplace safety because of extreme heat and pollution from Australia’s bushfire seasons.

“Schools and childcare centres already have policies in place that limit the time that children play outside and are exposed to extreme weather conditions. But as organisations brace for hot conditions each year, knowing what the current and forecast Air Quality Index is will be very useful to better understand health risk exposures to smoke. It means people can prepare activities accordingly and with health safety as a priority.”

An authority on respiratory diseases, Professor Alvin Ing expressed concern during the 2019/20 bushfire season, about the unchartered territory in which Australia found itself when trying to determine the longer-term health consequences of air pollution.

“It should raise a flag,” explains Peter Kirby “that an esteemed doctor expects lung cancers to spike in the next decade and beyond, because of the toxic particles and carcinogens that we’re likely to breathe from polluted air.”

While medical specialists investigate the impact of seriously hazardous air pollution levels, another conversation has received urgent attention. Asbestos risks are now a common problem in the aftermath of bushfires.”

The delicate matter of asbestos and bushfires

When bushfires destroy buildings, what’s left can be hazardous. Asbestos is an example of a hazardous material that exists in many buildings despite its prohibited use in 2003. Undisturbed, asbestos carries low risk, but once exposed it requires specialist clean-up.

Denny Bolatti’s work as an Occupational Hygienist for Trinitas Group has required him to understand the safety risks from asbestos and why these may not become apparent until extreme weather conditions impact buildings or cause roof and ceiling damage. He sees reports of new cases of asbestos-related diseases steadily rising across the country, despite the ban on using the material that was enforced more than 30 years ago.

“The fact is that many regional towns are home to some very old, undisturbed buildings and they are located in Australia’s most bushfire-prone areas.”

Denny believes most people hold a common misunderstanding about asbestos which is that that once a fire destroys a building it also destroys any asbestos in it. The reality is that asbestos is never actually destroyed and requires careful disposal.

“We recommend a couple of important precautionary measures during the clean-up of fire damaged buildings containing asbestos. Firstly, get confirmation from emergency services, utilities companies or local councils that it’s safe to enter the property again, and put up warning signs to discourage people from entering. Secondly, have a site assessment done by a Licensed Asbestos Assessor.”

Peter Kirby agrees and warns the hazards of disturbing dangerous materials during a clean-up can lead to serious health problems.

“We know that asbestos is dangerous once released into the air. Breathing in asbestos fibres is what can lead to diseases of the lungs, including cancer,” he explains.

“Just do the check with your local emergency services to know that it is safe to return to your property. Always try to avoid taking children onto fire-damaged properties and if you do then ensure they remain protected at all times.”

Asbestos risks should raise health and safety concerns for organisations, because often there is less visible collateral damage.

“Not only are there personal health risks relating to asbestos remediation works but there are also reputational risks to organisations. If our clients need assistance with asbestos management, our Risk Team can help with advice and solutions. Not all insurers have partnerships with experts in asbestos management.”

Denny Bolatti suggests organisations ensure that asbestos and other hazardous materials are identified within their buildings sooner rather than later. He wants to raise awareness about the effects of asbestos and the impact of any particulate matter in the air that can cause health hazard after a fire.

“It’s important to comply with regulations in your state, to know what they are and what the situation is likely to be for your building. Schools and organisations that care for others should always engage a Licensed Asbestos Assessor to identify potential hazardous materials before managing any extensions, renovations, or movement of mobile classrooms. This means many organisations will already be familiar with the topic of asbestos and can factor a potential asbestos scenario into a bushfire response plan.”

Beware hazardous materials after a fire

Asbestos, ashes especially from burnt treated timbers (such as copper chrome arsenate or ‘CCA’), dust, garden or farm chemicals, LP gas cylinders, medicines, metal and other residues from burnt household appliances, general chemicals (such as cleaning products), lead paint on walls and timbers

Denny Bolatti and Peter Kirby agree that the common risks after a fire are created during a make-safe of an affected bushfire area.

“Often well-meaning volunteers are called in to assist with clean-ups and this happens without the proper site investigations occurring to ensure that Hazardous Materials are already removed before the clean-up commences,” says Peter.

“Clean-ups can create a lot of dust and if the site contains ‘unseen’ Hazardous Materials such as asbestos, these can become airborne and cause a potential liability risk for the property managers.”

Commonly, ash will remain around a property after a fire. Some of it may be from burned timber structures that have been treated with chemicals or preservatives used to prevent insects, wood rot and wood fungus. Chemicals are also used to protect wooden telegraph poles and fences.

“One of the main concerns is the residue from burning of Copper Chrome Arsenate,” says Denny Bolatti.

“After a fire the wood that has been treated with this can contain up to 10 per cent arsenic, copper and chromium. Swallowing only a few grams of it is harmful and it’s important to keep children, pets, and other animals away from these ash areas until a proper clean-up is achieved,” he says.

“It’s even unsafe to disturb the dust when walking around a property after a bushfire.”

Property and equipment maintenance reduce risk

Bushfire affected air can have an impact on towns and cities some distance away, and infiltrate water storage. Regular maintenance of water tanks, buildings and roofs, and equipment is an obligation that has implications for insurance policies. Close attention to regular servicing and cleaning of any equipment that filters air should also be a priority after a bushfire.

Smoke and ash can even contaminate tank water. It may not be safe to drink it or give it to animals after a bushfire. Peter Kirby warns septic tanks are often weakened by fire.

“Where a water tank is likely to be physically damaged. The safest thing to do is contact a licensed plumber to have it assessed. Damage to electrical equipment and roofs needs to be assessed by a qualified tradesperson.”

“Clean filtration systems are vital for organisations that care for the wellbeing of others, especially in aged care facilities and schools. Organisations need to ensure that air conditioners are maintained and checked after a bushfire, and even if serviced they should be washed again.”

Regular maintenance applies to any machinery of importance whether for a school or aged care facility, welfare centre or hospital.

Trinitas Group advises the following if you enter a property after a bushfire:

  1. Wear protective clothing before entering
  2. Sturdy footwear and heavy-duty work gloves
  3. Disposable overalls, with long sleeves and trousers
  4. A P2 face mask (also known as N95 masks)
  5. When leaving the property dispose of gloves, overalls, and masks into a garbage bag. Wash hands after removing contaminated clothing and articles. Clean shoes before wearing again.

Ross Castle

As General Manager, Client for CCI, Ross is a strategic thinker who guides corporate clients through complex challenges to help them achieve strong results. He is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors and the Australian and New Zealand Institute of Insurance and Finance, and a Qualified Practicing Insurance Broker with a Master of Business Administration. He is also part of the Australian Institute of Company Directors alumni.

See all articles by Ross

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