GPs caught in bushfires brace for more devastation

Matt Woodley

11/11/2019 4:11:27 PM

Lives and homes have already been lost in the inferno, but ‘catastrophic’ conditions could mean the worst is yet to come.

Firefighter battling a fire.
A firefighter battles the blaze near Glen Innes, where conditions have been described as ‘apocalyptic’. Credit: AAP

Despite the weekend’s blaze killing three people, injuring dozens and razing hundreds of homes, 400,000 people from Byron Bay to the south of Sydney were warned on Monday that conditions will likely deteriorate.
NSW Police Minister David Elliot has said the coming days could be ‘the most dangerous bushfire week this nation has ever seen’, as at least 60 fires continue to burn uncontained, devastating 850,000 hectares of land.
Glen Innes-based GP registrar Dr James White was out of town over the weekend, but said the scenes on the drive back were ‘apocalyptic’.
‘It’s hard to describe the vastness of it … driving back it’s smoke the whole way,’ he told newsGP.
‘Apocalyptic is probably the best way to describe it. With the vast area that’s affected by the drought as well, it’s all it’s pretty heavy on all of us.’
The area surrounding Glen Innes has been one of the hardest hit. More than 40 people have been injured and 150 homes destroyed, while one local estimated 80% of the buildings in nearby Wytaliba had been destroyed, including the school.
The majority of the fires are in the national park, but Dr White said a wind change had the potential to put the main town site under threat, and stretch local resources even further.
‘We have a reasonable response system, we’ve got close to 100 fire trucks in town,’ he said.
‘[But] the hospital itself is definitely under pressure. We’re a small 30-bed hospital, we have two GP obstetricians and two GP anaesthetists, [and] I’m not sure if they’d be able to call or get extra help to come in.
‘I don’t think we are asking for it at this point, but it has crossed my mind what the catalyst for extra help would be?’
To the southeast, Woolgoolga-based GP Dr Ashlea Broomfield has also been dealing with fallout related to the fires – in particular the thick blanket of smoke and ash that has covered everything in sight.
‘Friday was a pretty big day. There was smoke all day in the air, and then by about 3pm it looked basically like sunset – the whole sky was orange and red [due to the flames],’ she said.
‘Our whole backyard is covered in ash and burnt leaves … we’ve had a fair amount of smoke pollution. Even though there’s no fire exactly in my town, there were three big out-of-control fires within a 50–100 kilometre radius. There’s been a lot of destruction in the area.’
Dr Broomfield said many of her patients have been affected, particularly those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, and while she isn’t currently in immediate danger, she is not sure what would happen if the wind changes.
‘These are the worst ones I’ve seen [in 10 years],’ she said.
‘I’m in town so there’s not much I can do if it comes closer to us. Basically go down to the beach and hope for the best … if it comes into town it’s going to be pretty bad.’

If you have been impacted by a fire, please take care of your own health. Should you need support, dont hesitate to contact the RACGP. The RACGP GP Support Program provides free and confidential psychological support to members.
The Doctor’s Health Advisory Service also provides confidential crisis and referral service 24 hours, seven days a week.
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