BY NATASHA SCHAPOVA
Air quality monitors have been installed in the Yarra Valley following concerns controlled back-burning to prevent bushfires was forcing residents to breathe unsafe levels of carbon dioxide, among other pollutants.
Yarra Valley doctors joined the local council in lobbying the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) to install the monitors, which will record changes to air quality while planned burns are taking place.
While those living in the Yarra Valley region have celebrated the decision, residents from neighbouring towns want to be afforded the same protection.
Kinglake is located about 25 kilometres from the Yarra Valley and was one of the worst-impacted towns during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, with 120 people killed.
Controlled burning is commonplace in the region, and resident Sue McKinnon said air quality monitors need to be extended to her community.
“The government should install far more monitors than they have at the moment. I’m glad that at least Yarra Valley has one now - it’s long overdue,” Ms McKinnon said.
“Though I am not in the Yarra Valley, we suffer from smoke pollution here [in Kinglake]. It seems to settle where I live and I have had to drive downhill to the north eastern suburbs for clean air on many days.
“The government should be reducing pollution, not making it and telling people to go inside - which helps very little anyway,” she added.
Yarra Ranges mayor Richard Higgins said in a statement the council is thankful for the quick response from the Victorian Government when it came to installing the monitors.
“In Yarra Ranges, we are well above the state average for hospital admissions and deaths for vaccine-preventable pneumonia and influenza,” Cr Higgins said.
“Our community’s health and wellbeing is critically important, especially during the COVID-19 situation, and the last thing any of us would like to see is residents being hospitalised for illnesses that can be prevented.”
Air quality monitors measure the level of pollutants in the air within a 15 kilometre radius, defining the air quality as good, moderate, poor, very poor or hazardous.
They monitor airborne hazardous particles, along with levels of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.
When all of these particles and gases are detected at unsafe levels, the air is determined to be polluted.
All smoke from the planned burns contains carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter that can increase the amount of these particles in the air and therefore worsen air quality.
Yarra Ranges Council director Jane Price said the monitors would help read the pollution levels in the nearby areas.
“Before these monitors were installed, community members in Warburton had to rely on air quality information gathered in Mooroolbark, a significant distance away,” Ms Price said.
“Residents in Healesville, Warburton and surrounding towns will be able to access precise and relevant information about air quality in their area [now],” she said.
According to an Australian Parliament current issues brief, planned burns are an essential safety measure for preventing extremely hot fast-moving wildfires, because doubling a forest’s fuel load doubles the rate the fire will spread, while quadrupling its intensity.
Specialised general practitioner Dr Shikha Chhabra MBBS (Hons), FRACGP works at the North Mitcham Clinic, not too far from where the monitors are installed, and said everyone should take necessary precautions during the burns.
“We do already know that exposure to air pollution causes worsening of heart conditions, asthma and other lung conditions. We also know that people with less cardio-respiratory reserves have worse outcomes with COVID-19,” Dr Chhabra said.
She said it was best to stay indoors during burns and avoid strenuous activities requiring a higher level of cardio-respiratory function.
However, the limitations to exercise caused by the inability to go outdoors during planned burns can be detrimental.
Dr Chhabra said that other than not using tobacco, exercise is the most important factor in preventing disease.
“Combined with social isolation, job losses and the economic downturn, reduced opportunities for exercise could lead to the perfect storm for a mental health crisis for many people.”
Strategic bushfire management is to be implemented in other regions including Metropolitan, Barwon South West, Grampians, Loddon Mallee, Hume and Gippsland in the future.