Thursday, November 26, 2020

Keeping our Cool – 1 Protecting ourselves from extreme heat

 

Cooling off Russian style during the heatwave of 2010. That heatwave believed to be the worst in its history, killed an estimated 55,736 people

With a record breaking heatwave expected to run right across Australia from Broome in the North West to South Eastern Australia this weekend, I had better post this about protecting yourself and your family now. After that we’ll talk about some of the longer term measures which various countries, communities and workplaces are taking, given that such heat waves are becoming increasingly common.

Make no mistake about it, heat kills. In fact, in Australia and the USA, heat kills more people than any other weather related phenomenon – more than floods, more than hurricanes and cyclones, and that’s not counting those people with underlying conditions such as heart disease, whose deaths are not necessarily attributed to extreme heat, but in which higher temperatures may well have played a role.  The World Health Organisation estimates that between 1998 and 2017, 166,000 people died due to heatwaves. During the 2020 heatwave, the UK alone is estimated to have had 2500 heat related deaths, while the rest of Europe had around 70,000. According to the CDC, the USA has had an average of 738 additional deaths per year due to heat related events between 2014 and 2018 and that there have been around 10,000 heat related deaths between 1999 and 2016, making it a major new public health threat especially as heatwaves become more frequent and more intense. The last Northern summer was the hottest on record but things are like to get worse.  To see the records for your region, click here.

Some groups have also been found to be much more vulnerable than others. They include the elderly, pregnant women, isolated people and those with underlying health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity, and also those who work outdoors such as farmers and construction workers. School children and others engaged in sport or vigorous exercise are also likely to experience more heat stress. Where you live matters too. People in urban areas where there are large swathes of concrete are generally more at risk than those who live in the country. This is because concrete and paved surfaces absorb more heat and retain it far longer than areas with grass or trees. People on low incomes are also  more at risk if they can't access air conditioning, adequate healthcare and so on. They are also less likely to have green space in the vicinity.Extreme heat also affects us in other ways such as confusion or loss of concentration leading to accidents, lower productivity, even in office jobs and increases in crime or violence, during periods of intense heat, which may not be reflected in the statistics above. 


Things we can do to beat the heat

1.       The CDC says that 40% of the heat in a house comes in through windows, so if you can, install external awnings and shade cloth before the hot weather arrives.  Have air conditioners serviced for maximum efficiency, though be aware that if everyone turns theirs on at the same time, there may be power outages. The CDC also says that we should be as careful about sealing gaps around doors and windows in summer as we are in winter to prevent loss of cold air from the house. Wonderful as it is, air conditioning is not only expensive, but unless it powered by renewable energy, also adds to the problem of global warming.  Fans may help, but once the temperature reaches 38oC (100.4oF) they become less effective and may mask heat stress. Roof ventilation may help too.

 

1.       Watch the weather. Most countries now have excellent warning systems. Make sure you have plenty of water on hand and refrigerate some if you can. Keep medication cool. Keep some supplies too. You don’t want to have to rush about in hot weather. If you can make ice blocks and icepacks too. Sports drinks may be helpful because they contain electrolytes but soft drinks generally are not as beneficial as water  

 

2.       To keep the heat out of your house in the first place, close curtains and blinds and make sure awnings are down.

 

3.       Avoid vigorous activities in the hottest part of the day. If you must work or play sport, allow for plenty of breaks in the shade to cool off

 

4.       Wear light, loose and breathable clothing –natural fibres, because they allow the body to cool itself via perspiration. Dark colours will absorb more heat, whereas light colours deflect it. Wear a light hat outside too.

 

5.       Drink plenty of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Make sure children, athletes and vulnerable people drink plenty of water too.  Don’t forget pets and farm animals either and leave water for wildlife too if you can. Cool off yourself with cool showers or baths or by wetting exposed skin.

 6.      If you don’t have access to air conditioning, try to find places such as malls and libraries which do, having regard for any necessary COVID related  health  measures such as social distancing and not going anywhere if you have any symptoms. The same applies to public pools and beaches. Parks and gardens and shady trees help to dissipate heat by transpiration.

 7.       Try not to cook inside on a very hot day. When we lived in Darwin without an air conditioner, I’d cook things like rice and pasta in the evening so that we could have salads the next day. A microwave and ready meals will also reduce heat and cooking time. We also cooked outside on public barbecues so we didn’t make the kitchen any hotter than necessary.  

 

8.       Check on the elderly, children, people who live alone and other vulnerable people often.  Some elderly people and those with a range of other conditions may not be able to regulate their temperatures as well as healthy people, so be sure to check their temperature.  Temperatures above 39oC (103F) are life threatening and the person should immediately seek medical attention to prevent heat stroke organ damage or worse. Heat stroke is indicated by hot dry skin, the absence of perspiration and a strong fast pulse. The victim may also become confused or lose consciousness,  

 

9.       Other signs of heat stress include cramps, nausea, fainting and headaches, Take the person to a shady place, remove excess clothing and cool them with cold wraps, cool baths or showers. Make sure they drink plenty of water. Sports drinks with electrolyte replacement are also effective. Heat exhaustion is characterised by heavy sweating, paleness, vomiting, fainting, dizziness, cramps nausea or weakness. If the symptoms last more than hour, seek medical help.  Learn to recognise the signs of heat stress, or better still, do a First Aid Course.  You can also download the Red Cross App .

 

10.   Never, ever leave young children or pets in a car on a hot day. According to the CDC, 21 children died in hot cars in 2019 alone.  

 

This is just a general summary cobbled together from various sources. Check if there is a specific plan for your area. Several of Australia's state governments now have them - for example, this one by New South Wales Health 

or the one by the Red Cross

For the USA check the Government website


How to protect yourself from a Bushfire

Image by Julie Clarke from Pixabay


Unfortunately Australia is rapidly developing expertise in what works and what doesn’t when it comes to bushfires.  We, closely followed by California, are right in the front lines when it comes to a warmer and dryer planet, so here are some hints. I’ve taken most of these from the South Australian Country Fire Service pages because theirs are very comprehensive, but do check what your local community is doing too especially with regard to Evacuation Centres or Safe Places.  


Long before a fire

  •   Clear away rubbish and long grass, make sure there are no trees close to the house.   Clear gutters and put in quality metal  leaf guards
  • Fit fine mesh screens on doors and windows as it is often embers from fires which cause houses to burn down. One bushfire which I saw from ten kilometres away still carried smoke and burning debris to the place where I was staying. Bushfires generate their own weather.

·      

 

 
  • Make that Fire Plan. How will you get away? Alternative routes in case the road is blocked by fallen trees or power lines? What will you take? Make sure the whole family understands it. Use drawings at eye level so that children can follow it too. Let them help. Do a practice run. Who does what? How long does it take? Now imagine doing it in thick smoke, in darkness and or with embers falling, intense heat and fire roaring in your ears.
  • Make sure everyone knows where there nearest Safer Place is – it could be a school or an open area such as a sporting field. Ask your council. There are Community Fire Plans for most areas
  •  Have someone everyone can ring -a relative or a friend, in case you get separated and make sure everyone has that phone number, either on their phone or written down. Sometimes local lines and towers will be down or too busy with emergency calls, so an interstate person is best.
  • Make copies of all important documents such as driver’s licences, passports, land titles, social security and insurance papers and either put into your evacuation bag or put them on a USB stick and keep it with you
  •  Have an evacuation bag ready with water, snacks, a change of clothes, toiletries, a first aid kit including any medication, a torch, a phone and charger and possibly a blanket or two. The latter should be made of wool because wool not only keeps you warm, but will offer some protection in the event that you have to pass through a fire front
  • You may also want to include say, a favourite toy or pillow for each child and perhaps a colouring book or pencils to keep them occupied.  
  • Have a bag for work too and one for the car, especially if you are on the road a lot. If you travel the same route often, keep your eye open for places where you could shelter in the event of a fire. 
  • Think about how you will deal with pets or farm animals as some shelters won’t take them.
  •  Make sure you have enough fuel for an emergency and some cash for necessities in case ATMS won't work     
  •   Check on singles and people who are isolated to make sure  they have plans too and are not left behind
  •  Let the fire service know if you have a swimming pool or dam from which they can take water if necessary. See other specialist advice for farmers below



  •   Listen closely to the Weather Bureau for any warnings regarding the weather. Do not light any fires on days of total fire ban and head warnings.  The fire service in your area will know of any fires already in progress in your area. If possible leave well before they reach you and stay tuned  to the ABC for news about road closures, power outages or traffic congestion. If possible send family members - especially children and the elderly to less vulnerable places, well ahead of an outbreak    

 

In a Fire

If you don’t manage to get away beforehand, fill gutters, baths and sinks with water before the fire reaches you. Wet down the house on the side on which you expect the fire. Remove flammable objects such as shade sails and outdoor furniture and have a hose ready to put out spot fires.

Because radiant heat can burn you well ahead of a fire, always dress in long sleeves and long trousers, wear boots and cover your head. Clothing should be made of natural materials such as wool or cotton as sysnthetics can melt and stick to your skin. Try to get behind something solid such as rocks or walls to deflect as much heat as possible. Wear a mask such as the P2 to protect you from smoke inhalation, or breathe through a wet cloth. Use wet towels to close gaps under doors and stay away from windows because they might explode.

When the fire does hit, lie down on the floor until it passes and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.


 

If you are in a car when the fire hits, pull off the road, put on your headlights to warn other cars of your presence – it gets very dark and smoky, and get down as low as you can, again using a wet cloth over your mouth and nose if you don’t have a mask and cover yourself with that blanket if you have one. Tyres may melt, interiors may smoke, but the petrol tank is unlikely to explode. Don't leave your car because it will offer better protection from radiant heat

 

After a Fire

 Don’t enter an area where there has been a bushfire until you have the all clear from Firemen, State Emergency Services, Police or other authorised people. Buildings and structures such as chimneys may be unstable, some materials may still be burning or there may be live wires.  

For much more detail on this topic see the full text here,or consult your local fire authority.


 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Getting Ready for Summer -1 Bushfire Season

Sign at Death Valley (USA) which had the world's highest recorded temperature (54.44 oC/ 130oC) in June 2020

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

 

Once upon a time we looked forward to summer. It conjured up images of lazy days by the pool or the beach and the expression “Are you ready for Christmas,” meant baking puddings and making Christmas card lists. Now we are making fire plans and approach the season with fear and trepidation. For many it will bring back painful memories of the Christmas past, especially for those who are still waiting for help to rebuild their homes, despite all the generous donations and the funds promised by the Australian government. 

 

Fortunately there's just been an excellent series on the the ABC  “Big Weather and how to survive it.” which has a lot of useful tips. If you live in Australia and haven't seen it yet, you should. If you haven't made any preparations yet, both the ABC  and the Allianz Insurance group also offer good advice. For those of you reading this in the Northern Hemisphere, I'll be covering things like severe storms, flooding, hurricanes and other forms of severe weather, a bit later on, but you can pick up some good tips regarding winter weather here.

A foretaste of hell

 “Hell is coming,” warned Spanish meteorologist Silvia Laplana as she showed what Spain could expect last June. France, Spain and Germany all experienced heatwaves in the Northern summer. The  US National Weather Service warned of its first “Firenado" and everyone knows that Australia got its own glimpse of hell when its summer kicked in. It’s official now that Australia has warmed by 1.44oC . That may not sound like much, but we have seen the damage it does and we can only expect worse to come, even though the pandemic may have temporarily slowed things down. To see how things have changed in your lifetime click here.

 

Image by Claudia Engel from Pixabay


Fires are now more frequent and more intense. Even rainforests are burning in Australia, places which were previously more or less immune because of their high moisture content. Fire departments no longer say “Wait until you are told to evacuate.” Instead they say, “Go to a place of safety as soon as you hear of an outbreak in your area.” Insurers, having had their fingers burnt – pardon the pun, are no longer so keen to offer insurance to those in fire -prone areas and if they do, it is at much higher premiums, and despite what timber companies say about how clearing bushland would make it less flammable, the word from California at least, is that that clear -felling exacerbates drying and adds to the intensity of fire. It certainly did not save homes in the Hope Valley Fire. Fire seasons also start earlier and last longer so that they now overlap with the Northern Hemisphere summer meaning that we can no longer count on fire fighters coming from the other side of the world to help us.

 

It's said that the meek shall inherit the earth, but is this what we want?

Image by MarkJToomey from Pixabay

 Personally, I think it’s shocking in a country as fire -prone as Australia, that we are still relying on volunteers to risk their lives fire -fighting when what we need is a dedicated, national fully trained, well -paid and equipped professional fire -fighting force and emergency personnel which can be dispatched to any region and comprehensive national plans. This is the new enemy and we should act accordingly. Not that individual domestic plans have no merit, but in isolation they are a poor substitute for a broad-based national approach. That was a major part of the recently concluded Royal Commission  into the fires and the National Natural Natural Disaster Arrangements. Read their other major recommendations here.

As the commissioners remarked, it's not enough to respond to fires after they happen, "avoiding or mitigating risks" is much more cost effective. Given that aside from the direct losses (33 killed as a result of the fires, another 400 dead from smoke inhalation, 3000 homes lost and so on, together with the loss of an area the size of Korea or Wales and Scotland combined, not to mention five billion animals and whole ecosystems) the damage bill including the long term effects of injuries, the toll on mental health and the loss of productivity, has now been estimated to be in the order of $100 billion, most of us would surely agree.Immediate  GDP impacts alone certainly do not tell the whole story.  

 

With  Hobart reaching 33o C (94 F) when l started writing this and NZ already reporting a heatwave, it will be interesting to see how many of  the  Commission's 80 recommendations will be put into effect, or whether, like the Royal Commission into Aged Care, they will be tabled and noted but not be acted upon. At least one - the need for an aerial fighting fleet, has already been scotched. The Prime Minister has announced that there will be no dedicated water bombers for Australia, though it seems that there is no shortage of taxpayer funds ($250 million) for things like Scott Morrison’s private plane. Although Climate Change was beyond the Royal Commission’s terms of reference, commissioners did say that it would be remiss of them if they did not mention Climate Change and that even if all emissions ceased today, the already released CO2 would continue to produce higher temperatures until 2050. This means that Australia (along with the rest of the world) should not only stop emitting greenhouse gases but must start reducing them now. 

 

To their credit, some industries aren't waiting for the axe to fall. Suncorp for instance, will no longer finance or insure oil and gas investments and three of our four major banks are getting out of thermal coal, though they have yet to take the next step -no longer funding oil and gas exploration. Some states and regions are also taking steps towards Carbon Zero. South Australia and Tasmania for example, are moving towards electric vehicles, though sadly South Australia also plans to tax them. In Tasmania's case, just switching the government fleet to hybrid or electric is expected to save $2 million in maintenance costs and $6 million in imported fuel, not to mention producing less noise and no emissions.The Europeans are of course well ahead and we hope for great things in the USA under Biden.

In  the next post we’ll talk a bit more about Bushfire Preparation and then about dealing with extreme heat


 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Saving Insects - 3 What we can do at home

 

-Image by Krzysztof Niewolny from Pixabay

Apply the Principles of Integrated Pest Management at home

 

Home gardeners can take a leaf out of our farmers’ book by trying the least toxic methods of pest control first. Try to exclude pests altogether first by using appropriate fencing, storing food in sealed containers, or keeping ants out by using non -toxic sticky pest strips in places where they gain access. You can keep ants away from honey jars by standing the jars in a saucer of water and so on. Try putting sachets of herbs such as Wormwood or Santolina in your wardrobe to keep moths out of your clothes. 

Encourage benign pest predators

Ladybirds like nothing better than a good feed of mites, aphids and thrips. Learn how to look after them and invite them into your garden here. Other helpful visitors include Katydids, Dragonflies and Lacewings, so don't kill them off with sprays.  Birds, especially Swifts and Swallows and locally Robins and Wrens, are particularly good at eating insects, grubs and caterpillars, though you may have to cover fruit trees and strawberries with nets during fruiting or flowering seasons. Most birds would also like access to water and would prefer having no cats and plenty of scrub to hide in, rather than open lawns.

 

Wormwoood  -Artemisia absinthum, will keep moths away from clothes

-Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Use natural pesticides if possible

 Avoid using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Before buying garden supplies, ask garden centres and nurseries if their plants or seeds have been treated – a pink coating usually denotes that they have been treated with neonics, although there is some evidence that this can actually reduce yields  because they also kill beneficial insects such as pollinators. [If you want more bees, plant bee friendly plants such as Hyssop, Lemon Balm or Bergamot]. If plants have been treated, Treehugger recommends removing the first year’s flowers, so that they do not tempt bees. Soaps and oils can usually be used to remove caterpillars. If they are applied early in the day, before bees go about their work, they won't cause them harm. Learn more here, or read about the Top 10 natural pest controls here. 

If you must use pesticides, use natural ones if possible. For example, a product made from orange peel can be used at home to kill moths, cockroaches, ants, fleas, locusts and weevils. Many such products have been tested  by (OMRI the Organic Materials Review Institute for use by organic gardeners.

If you must buy conventional ones, avoid those which are most harmful – Click here to see the list, though they may be called something else where you are, so be sure to check the labels and be aware that things like Lawn Weed and Feed and ornamental plants often contain up to 30 times more neonics, than seeds and plants intended for agriculture.

 

Let the "friendlies" get rid of your pests for free
- Image by Denis Doukhan from Pixaba

 Try Companion Plants

Many plants act as a repellent to certain pests. For example, the strong scent of African marigolds tends to discourage nematodes around tomatoes. Roses like garlic around them to repel pests. You could also plant species which encourage beneficial insects such as ladybirds or an abundance of birds to pick them off. Find out more here.Some people also plant "sacrificial" plants, i.e. something bugs like even better than whatever it is they are planting, so that the insects will go there instead of eating their intended crop.

Support the many Non -profit Organisations which are campaigning against the use of harmful products

 Urge local authorities to stop using them on public parks, nature strips and roadsides, in National Parks and in production Timber Plantations and to stop aerial spraying. Buy organic produce and support those who are doing the right thing. Ask your garden centre to stop stocking chemicals which can harm bees and other insects and follow Science Daily’s hints from the University of Helsinki, for more. They include NOT driving our cars and NOT introducing more foreign pests!

Join or start a community garden or your local organic gardening group to learn how the pros do it.

 Good to see my local supermarket starting to stock pyrethrum -based products! Ask yours if they will too.