Health burden of bushfire smoke in Australia

Nicolas Borchers Arriagada
Menzies Institute for Medical Research, University of Tasmania
Nicolás is a PhD Candidate in Medical Sciences at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research from the University of Tasmania. His research interests involve the application of engineering-type tools, economics, and modelling to policy-related environmental and energy problems. During his PhD, he will introduce the use of a health impact and economic assessment framework, into the evaluation of the health burden attributable to landscape fire smoke, including wildfires and prescribed burning (or hazard reduction burns).Nicolás comes from Chile where he completed his undergraduate studies as an Industrial Engineer with a Diploma in Environmental Engineering at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. After working several years as an environmental and sustainability consultant, he completed a Master of Environment at the University of Melbourne in Australia. On his return to Chile in 2014 he worked as an environmental data analyst at the Environmental Enforcement Agency, where he gained better knowledge about environmental regulations and the use of analytics tools for data manipulation and the assessment of environmental compliance. With more than ten years of working experience in areas such as air quality and human health impacts, public policy, public health, environmental regulations and analytics, decision-support systems, Nicolás looks forward to merging this knowledge into applicable tools and frameworks that will contribute to improve human wellbeing.Project Status: In progress, beginning 2018Grant Type: PhD

Why was funding this research important?

Wildfire risk reduction strategies (such as hazard reduction burning) have significant impacts on people with asthma through production of smoke and fine particulate matter (PM2.5).

During wildfires and interventions such as prescribed burning, a large population might be exposed to very high short-term (ranging from hours to days) concentrations of PM2.5. There is strong evidence these episodes cause increased asthma symptoms and medication use, and increased incidence of hospital admissions for asthma. This is why it is essential that the health and economic costs of bushfires and bushfire management strategies such as prescribed burning explicitly consider the health impacts of smoke.

“People with asthma are amongst the most and first affected with fire smoke episodes. I hope that my research helps raise awareness of the health burden associated with fire smoke, and push for improving the lives of people with asthma at least in the following two ways: 1) Inform people with asthma about the risks of being exposed to fire smoke, whether this comes from prescribed burn activities or bushfires, and 2) Increase awareness of decision makers so that this issue (fire smoke and health) is incorporated in the fire management risk communication process.” – Nicolas Borchers Arriagada

What are the researchers doing?

The main objective of this research is to provide an evaluation framework or guideline, to guide this process. This project aims to showcase a health impact assessment (HIA) framework approach in different case studies, in the Australian context, with varying degrees of complexity and focus. The integration of these case studies, will include a general discussion of the framework applied, highlighting the strengths and limitations encountered during this process, ultimately, proposing future steps to improve the assessment approach. Case studies will include: 1) the assessment of landscape fire smoke as a whole, 2) the comparison of the burden attributable to wildfires and prescribed burns, and 3) the comparison of LFS impacts with those attributable to other relevant sources, such as biomass smoke produced during winter by wood heating.

This PhD research includes the following projects;

  • Literature review on climate change, bushfires, heatwaves and health impacts in Australia
  • Systematic review and meta-analysis of fire smoke PM and asthma outcomes
  • Historical health impacts from vegetation smoke: Bushfires vs. woodsmoke in Tasmania
  • Health costs attributable to PM daily standard exceedances in Western Australia
  • Impacts of the 2019/2020 Bushfires in East Australia
  • Historical health costs from fire smoke: wildfires vs prescribed burning in New South Wales
  • Association between all-cause mortality and biomass smoke in Tasmania

Related Publications and Presentations

  1. Borchers Arriagada, Horsley, Palmer, Morgan, Tham and Johnston 2019, Association between fire smoke fine particulate matter and asthma-related outcomes: Systematic review and meta-analysis, Environmental Research, 179(A), doi:
  2. Borchers Arriagada, Bowman, Palmer and Johnston 2020, Climate Change, Wildfires, Heatwaves and Health Impacts in Australia. In: Akhtar R. (eds) Extreme Weather Events and Human Health, Springer, doi:
  3. Borchers-Arriagada, Palmer, Bowman, Williamson and Johnston 2020, Health Impacts of Ambient Biomass Smoke in Tasmania, Australia, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 17(9), 3264, access online:
  4. Borchers Arriagada, Palmer, Bowman, Morgan, Jalaludin and Johnston 2020, Unprecedented smoke-related health burden associated with the 2019-20 bushfires in eastern Australia, Medical Journal of Australia, doi: 10.5694/mja2.50545
  5. Borchers Arriagada, Palmer, Bowman and Johnston 2020, Exceedances of national air quality standards for particulate matter in Western Australia: sources and health-related impacts, Medical Journal of Australia, accessed online:
  6. Johnston, FH and Borchers-Arriagada, N and Morgan, GG* and Jalaludin, B* and Palmer, AJ and Williamson, GJ and Bowman, DMJS, “Unprecedented health costs of smoke-related PM2.5 from the 2019–20 Australian megafires”, Nature Sustainability (September) pp. 1-12. ISSN 2398-9629 (2020)
  7. Poster presentations at international conferences:
    1. ISEE 2019 International Conference, Utrecht, Netherlands: A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effect of landscape fire smoke particulate matter (PM) on asthma-related outcomes
    2. ISEE 2020 International Conference, Virtual: Health and economic impacts associated with smoke from summer bushfires in Australia, 2000 – 2020