Brad Forssman, Director, Nepean Blue Mountains Public Health Unit
Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District (NBMLHD) covers a large area that encompasses urban, semi-urban, National Park and rural land. The population is concentrated in the south-eastern section of the district but there are sizeable communities scattered along the highway that traverses the Blue Mountains and in Windsor and Richmond. The NBMLHD Public Health Unit (PHU) has only been operating as a separate unit since July 2013, when it split from the Parramatta PHU following the devolution of the local health districts (LHDs).
In October 2013, large bushfires burnt throughout the Blue Mountains and Lithgow areas, eventually destroying over 200 homes and seriously damaging a further 200.
These occurred in the context of unseasonably hot and dry weather conditions throughout NSW and were not the only fires burning at that time.
However, the sheer intensity of the Blue Mountains fires and the rapidity with which they spread (most houses were destroyed or damaged within a few hours of the start of the Linksview fire) caused significant disruption to the lives of thousands of residents in the local health district.
The first sign of the bushfires was on the Thursday, the day after the State Mine fire was ignited near Lithgow, and the same day that the Linksview fire started in Springwood. From our office at Nepean Hospital we saw an apocalyptic red sky with dark smoke and there were burning embers falling outside. We used the RFS website, ABC radio and Twitter to quickly obtain information about what was going on and a number of our staff left work to defend their threatened homes in the mountains. The LHD Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) was activated once the scale of the disaster was known.
The immediate public health concerns were those around air quality and the risk of exacerbations of respiratory illness, as well as concerns about drinking water quality due to bushfire debris contaminating water treatment plants and private water supplies. As the emergency progressed, there were further concerns about the health of firefighters, particularly the risk (and presence) of gastroenteritis outbreaks amongst the firefighters who were staying in camps in Penrith and the Hawkesbury. As people returned to their fire-affected areas, concern shifted to that of asbestos and CCA-contaminated fire debris and the risk to residents’ health.
We initially issued media alerts, which were also posted on the LHD’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, about the decrease in air quality and how to reduce the risk of exacerbations of respiratory problems. When the LHD’s EOC was activated, we became involved in its operations, providing public health advice particularly around evacuations of nursing homes and a hospital. We also undertook regular inspections of the firefighters’ camps and evacuation centres, providing information and advice on infection control, food and water safety, and animal control (in the early stages of the bushfires, many people brought their animals to evacuation centres, including chickens, dogs, goats and small horses). We were also involved in initial stages of the recovery process, and provided public health personnel to the Recovery Centre in Springwood to provide advice about the health issues associated with returning to fire-affected properties.
We learnt the importance of applying the Incident Control System in incidents such as these, even in a small unit such as ours. We also now appreciate the importance of clear communication lines within and between agencies to ensure messages are delivered efficiently and appropriately. Finally, we learnt the value of new media (Twitter, Facebook, websites) in rapidly disseminating as well as obtaining up to date information, in addition to realising the importance of using a web-based Wiki (such as PopNet) which enables staff who need to work from home during such a disaster to have secure access to required documentation and protocols.