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Australian Bushfire Crisis - the Essential Role of Environmental Health Officers in the Clean-Up

6th February 2020 RIAMS

We are in regular contact with our environmental health friends and colleagues in Australia, where the bushfire crisis is continuing to rage. Sean LaFontaine sent us this update; he is a well-known environmental health officer based in Victoria, one of the states hit by the crisis. Sean works for Kernow Environmental Health Services and oversees environmental health teams in several local authorities in Victoria. He is also involved with the distribution of our RIAMS platform across Australia.

As well as the response, environmental health officers (EHOs) are heavily involved in the recovery phase of a bushfire event. This includes EHOs conducting secondary or post-impact assessments on properties affected by the fire. The recovery phase has only just commenced, and RIAMS has been set up to provide an invaluable library of emergency management documents and guidance for EHOs to access easily and reference when providing advice on environmental health matters relevant to the bushfires. RIAMS Communities is supporting EHOs by fulfilling a vital role in problem-solving across the EHO community in Victoria.

Since November 2019 virtually all states in Australia have been impacted by this current bushfire season; however, the worst hit include New South Wales, South Australia and particularly my home state, Victoria. To date, more than 22 people have lost their lives, over 6 million hectares of land has been burnt, over 1,500 homes have been destroyed and in excess of 1 billion animals and wildlife have been affected.

The North East and Gippsland regions of Victoria have borne most of the brunt of the fires. In early January, the fire moved rapidly through these regions, due to extreme weather conditions such as heat and wind. The fire progressed so quickly that many local communities and holidaymakers along the south-east coastline, particularly the town of Mallacoota, did not have enough time to evacuate. With many people trapped, the government deployed the army to rescue those in danger by helicopter and boat, with a naval ship sent to the region.

During a significant bushfire event such as this one, environmental health officers (EHOs) play a crucial role in the relief and recovery phases. Up until the past couple of weeks, the major focus involved firefighters and other emergency services feverishly fighting the fires and trying to prevent them from spreading further.

Many people have been evacuated to relief centres consisting of local community centres, sporting clubs, showgrounds and other facilities located away from the fire front. These centres can offer evacuees safety whilst escaping the fire front threatening their properties. Generally, the local authority is responsible for setting up and managing the relief centre, while also providing the required support for evacuees.

Local community groups come together to provide meals for those in need, which presents a challenge for EHOs as they will need to work closely with these groups to ensure that the food served at the relief centres is safe in terms of storage, handling, preparation, serving, and that all hygiene practices are scrutinised carefully. The facilities available for the community groups’ food preparation are far from ideal when compared to commercial kitchens found in most food-related businesses. Problem-solving and a focus on risk should be the key points for an EHO operating in this challenging environment.

Other areas of concern for an EHO at a relief centre include:

  • Sanitation – ensuring that sufficient and clean amenities are available and are maintained
  • Waste – ensuring that waste facilities are available, and that they are emptied and cleaned regularly
  • Infection control – ensuring that hand sanitiser/soap is available and used in environments where food is being sold, as well as amenities and other key locations around the relief centre
  • Donations – many people and local businesses in the surrounding area of a relief centre often donate food, clothes, toys, money and other items to help those impacted by the fires. A particular focus for EHOs is to ensure that potentially hazardous foods are not brought into the relief centres and then distributed. Whilst the intentions of those who prepare meals and foods is extremely genuine, without knowing how and where the food was sourced, prepared, handled and transported, the risk is too high
  • General advice and support – people with properties affected will have questions or will be seeking information concerning aspects of their property and when they are able to return. This may include what to do with any food they have stored if power to their property is interrupted, how to deal with asbestos, how to determine if their water tank has been impacted by ash or fire retardant, whether their septic tanks system be impacted, etc. 

The recovery phase also requires significant involvement by EHOs. This includes EHOs conducting secondary or post-impact assessments on properties affected by the fire. In North East Victoria and Gippsland, this phase is in its infancy.

During these assessments, EHOs will inspect the property, identifying and providing advice on public health and environmental risks, such as presence of asbestos, disposal of dead animals and stock, contamination and remediation of water tanks, damage and rectification requirements for septic tank systems and waste management.

RIAMS and Communities have already and will continue to play a key part in supporting EHOs with their role in the relief and recovery effort due to the bushfires. Set up to provide an invaluable library of emergency management documents and guidance for EHOs, this resource can be accessed easily and referred to when providing advice on environmental health matters relevant to the fires. Vital information and documents contained in RIAMS and referenced by EHOs include investigation of asbestos on fire-affected properties, details of licensed asbestos removalists, private water supply and water tank safety, list of tank water carters, food safety after power outages, and using a PPE kit.

Communities has already been used by EHOs to reach out to their colleagues in local authorities affected by the fires, as a means of offering their support. Communities will continue to play an essential role, particularly with recovery and secondary impact assessments. EHOs will use the platform to problem solve and engage advice from other EHOs across the state, and more broadly across Australia, as they investigate and assess environmental health risks at fire-affected properties.