Summary

The bushfire season in 2019–20 saw unprecedented fires sweep across Australia with a massive impact on many communities (Australian Academy of Science 2020). In a season marked by severe and protracted drought, the natural environment was particularly devastated; scientists have estimated that, in the forests and woodlands that were burned during the 2019–20 bushfire season, there would have been almost 3 billion native vertebrates (World Wide Fund for Nature Australia 2020).

Thirty-three people lost their lives in the 2019–20 bushfire season (Parliament of Australia 2020). There were substantial property losses, as well as threats to lives and property that forced people to evacuate from their homes (Biddle et al. 2020). Smoke blanketed parts of Australia as the bushfires burned, leading to public health advice to stay indoors.

This report examines short-term health impacts of the 2019–20 bushfires—those that became apparent in the immediate days and weeks thereafter—with a focus on providing insights from health data. Data in this report concentrate on the period from September 2019 to March 2020.

Understanding the more immediate and short-term physical and mental health impacts of bushfires can help to ensure health services are sufficiently equipped to deal with them in any future bushfire event.

The full health and related impacts of the 2019–20 bushfires will not be known for some time; however, psychological health can be affected for many years and, while more research is needed into the effects of long-term exposure to bushfire smoke specifically, long-term exposure to air pollution is potentially related to a small increase in the risk of some chronic diseases (enHealth 2020).