Circumstances of Death and Diagnostic Difficulties in Brushfire Fatalities


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Roger W. Byard, M.B.B.S., M.D.
Discipline of Anatomy and Pathology
Level 3 Medical School North Building
The University of Adelaide
Frome Road
SA 5005


Abstract:  The deaths of 10 bushfire (brushfire) victims (aged 2–59 years; M/F 1:1) from the files of Forensic Science SA in Adelaide, South Australia, over an 8-year period (January 2002 to December 2009) are reported. Nine of the victims were found in or near motor vehicles. Death was attributed to incineration (N = 5), trauma from bushfire-related vehicle crashes (N = 2), inhalation of products of combustion with hyperthermia (N = 1), inhalation of products of combustion (N = 1), and undetermined (N = 1). Death scenes covered large areas and involved many victims. Loss of infrastructure and closure of local roads owing to debris limited access and made the finding of bodies difficult. Bodies in such fires may be exposed to the damaging effects of weather and animal predation. Heat damage hindered pathological assessment with resultant delays in identification. Assessment of antemortem injuries and determination of causes of death were also complicated by the condition of some of the bodies.