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Community urged to understand risks of peat smoke

POSTED: 
26 March 2018

A number of peat fires continue to burn as part of Victoria’s south west fires, posing ongoing challenges for both emergency services and the local community.

Peat is created gradually in wetlands through the build-up of partially decayed vegetation and once it has been ignited, it is very difficult to extinguish. The peat fire of most concern is burning near Cobrico and is 58 hectares by 7 metres deep and burns similarly to briquettes, releasing a lot of smoke as it burns.

Smoke from burning peat can reduce air quality, particularly within 1km of the fire, as the smoke contains fine particles, water vapor, gases including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides.  It may also contain sulphur compounds which are odorous. 

Environmental Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) has established incident air quality monitoring stations at Cobden, Camperdown, Terang and Cobrico to monitor the air conditions that may affect nearby properties. 

EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) have developed an expert, evidence based guide on the possible health impacts of peat smoke and the actions community members and emergency services personnel need to take based on their proximity to the peat smoke plume, as well as drifting smoke.

The guide and associated peat smoke proximity maps are available on www.emergency.vic.gov.au/relief

Incident Controller Mark Gunning said the focus is ensuring community members around the active peat fire near Cobrico are aware of the risks of peat smoke and understand what it means for them.

"We want the community to have the best information possible about the conditions so they can make informed decisions for themselves, their families and in the case of farmers, their livestock.  

“Everyone is encouraged to take action to manage their own health and wellbeing, and that of their families and animals.

“Look at your location, the amount of smoke in area and use the guide to consider potential risks to your health. You can use the guide to determine your individual risk, and decide on what action you should take,” said Incident Controller Mark Gunning.

“It is recommended that if you are within 1km of the peat smoke plume, you relocate to stay with family and friends overnight, however you can return during the day.  Take precautionary actions, such as regular testing and monitoring of your health if you return to visit your property,” said Incident Controller Mark Gunning.

“If you are within 1km - 6km of the peat smoke plume, it’s recommended you avoid outdoor physical activity, anyone with a heart or lung condition should take their medication as prescribed by their doctor and people with asthma should follow their asthma management plan.”

A 24 hour assessment centre has been established at the Terang Relief Centre, located at the Terang Civic Hall. Free health checks are available 24 hours a day and community members who are located within 1km of the smoke plume are encouraged to get their carbon monoxide levels tested regularly. 

As a precautionary measure, DHHS and Ambulance Victoria assisted in the relocation of the residents of the local aged care facility in Cobden on Sunday 25 March.  Residents were relocated to stay with family or to other facilities in the area. 

Also as a precaution, local schools in Cobden will also be temporarily relocated this week to ensure they see out the school term without the interruption from the sometimes poor air quality.  The school community has been notified of the arrangements. 

"It's important that people stay informed of the potential changing conditions. Our recommendation is you stay out of the smoke as much as possible.  Carbon monoxide builds up gradually in the human body over a period of hours and will gradually be removed after exposure stops,” said Incident Controller Mark Gunning.

Animals including livestock generally tolerate smoke (and ash fallout) from exposure to a smoke plume; however some animals, particularly pets and horses, may exhibit minor respiratory problems or eye irritation.

Every property and species is different and the levels of smoke exposure will vary from day to day depending on the prevailing wind.  Where safe to do so, it is recommended that livestock should be moved away from the active smoke plume. Veterinary advice should be sought if animal owners are concerned that their animals are being affected by smoke or ash.

There are a number of ways community members can access information including visiting www.emergency.vic.gov.au for updates on fire activity and air quality information and click on the Relief and Recovery tab for further information on relief services available. Community members are also encouraged to call the VicEmergency Hotline on 1800 226 226 for further information on the south west fires.