Operational Readiness of Rural Firefighters - Understanding Air Toxics in the Urban Interface

Presentation at Research Forum of the 2012 Bushfire CRC and AFAC Annual Conference.

In recent years an increase in population shifts towards the rural-urban fringe has been observed. With bushfire severity and fire season duration increasing as a result of changing climate, bushfires extending into the rural-urban interface are likely to become more frequent. At bushfires firefighters are exposed to a range of hazardous pollutants in particular fine particles, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, xylenes and phenol. The rural-urban interface, however, is characterised by multiple fuel types, including vegetation as well as combustible materials from house structures, house contents, vehicles, sheds, garages and other objects around a house. Combustible materials range from natural to synthetic products and when burning they are likely to emit toxic combustion products which may cause an increased health risk to firefighters, emergency service workers as well as the community.

Currently little is known about air toxics species emitted and exposure concentrations inhaled by fire and emergency workers during firefighting at bushfires that extend into the rural-urban interface. Quantification of exposure concentrations for fire fighting in urbanised areas is required to assess exposure risks to firefighters and emergency service workers and to identify and, where possible, mitigate risks to the short- and long-term health.

This talk presents the research conducted to better understand air toxics in the rural-urban interface. In particular three parts will be discussed: (1) identification of major objects present at the rural-urban interface and their material composition; (2) determination of major combustion products released during fires at the rural-urban interface; and (3) assessment of exposures of firefighters and populations to hazardous plumes from burning buildings. 

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