Linking wildfires and the spread of infections

15 January 2021 | Muriel Cozier

‘…trillions of microbes living on, and in, plants and soils can disperse around the planet through smoke…’

A paper from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, and the Australian National University says that studies need to be carried out into how climate change affects ‘fire disasters.’ The researchers say Australia must follow the science after the wake-up call of the 2019/2020 ‘Black Summer’ bushfires.

Publishing the research in Communications Earth and Environment, lead author Professor Nerilie Abram, from The Australian National University, said that the fires of 2019/2020 were unmatched in their scale and power, as well as the number of fires that transitioned into extreme pyrocumulonimbus events – extremely dangerous fires that generate their own thunderstorms. ‘In the lead up to the summer of 2019/2020, many part of southeast Australia were three years into severe drought,’  Professor Abram said.

The study points to predictions made more than 10 years ago that an increase in climate-driven fire risk would be observable by 2020.
Professor Abram added ‘There are also indications that southeast Australia could continue to become drier in winter and experience more frequent weather fronts in summer that cause dangerous fire weather, but research is needed to fully understand how these fire-relevant impacts of climate change might develop.’

At the same time, research published at the end of 2020, indicates that smoke from wildfires could carry infectious disease. The work, led by Leda Kobziar, a University of Idaho Associate Professor of wildland fire science in the College of Natural Resource, in the US, is published in the journal Science. Professor Kobziar and others have shown that ‘viable bacteria and fungi are emitted into the atmosphere during wildfires.’ The research indicates that trillions of microbes living on, and in, plants and soils can disperse around the planet through smoke, potentially spreading pathogens or toxins or affecting the biological functioning of the places they land.

Professor Kobziar recommends that fire, infectious disease, epidemiology and air quality scientists collaborate to determine the infectious potential of wildfire smoke.


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