The big smoke: how bushfires cast a pall over the Australian summer | Australia news


Waking in New South Wales this month has been a slow process of figuring out whether or not the fires have come to your door.

The smoke, worse in the mornings usually but increasingly thick at night, has become a familiar presence. On bad days it is inside homes and cars and offices. It could be from down the road or hundreds of kilometres away. On other days it can be hard to tell whether thin, mild smoke is really there or is just a trick of the light. At sunup and sundown, the sky becomes bright orange and red and angry. At night the moon is orange.

In Sydney cafes, people wedge the door closed as though they are keeping out the cold, even when it is nearing 30C outside.

Readers have told Guardian Australia they have put tape around their doors, bought complex air filters and hung wet towels above their childrens’ beds.


Philippa Bateman
(@PhilippaBateman)

Hello Bushfire twilight. SYDNEY harbour pic.twitter.com/Y45oroZuuT


Firefighters battle bushfires in Tarome and Lower Beechmont, Queensland.



Firefighters battle bushfires in Tarome and Lower Beechmont, Queensland. Photograph: Cam Neville/The Guardian

Queensland has also suffered badly, with 38 homes destroyed in this bushfire season. Almost 200,000 hectares have been burnt in the state since the start of September, and more than 2m hectares in NSW – a combined area larger than actual Wales.

South Australia and Western Australia have also experienced dangerous fires, and many are still burning on the east coast. Between 1 July and 29 November, there have been 7,530 individual fires in NSW. Six people have died in NSW and more than 600 homes destroyed – 4,700 homes have been saved by firefighters.

There is no sign the conditions will let up over the summer months. The Bureau of Meterology has said the hot and dry conditions will continue, leading to more severe fire danger warnings over Christmas and into 2020.

The fire season in Victoria typically comes later, and fire chiefs fear resources will be stretched beyond endurance if the southern state experiences a bad season while fires are still raging further north. Australia’s worst recent bushfire catastrophe came in February 2009, when 180 people died as conflagrations raced through small towns north of Melbourne.

The extent of the fires and the smoke that has drifted across Sydney and many other affected areas – combined with the seemingly endless drought in many areas of the country – have led to widespread fears that Australia is heading towards an ominous, apocalyptic time.

The actor Sam Neill tweeted that there was a sense of “the end of days” about the country seen from the air, as his plane approached on Tuesday.

Sam Neill
(@TwoPaddocks)

At 39000 ft , we could smell Australia long before we saw it . Perhaps 300 miles out. And it smelt of bushfires. Then as we came in to land , it looked more like the End of Days. pic.twitter.com/d5MjwnnBqL


Climbers on the Sydney Harbour bridge as smoke haze from bushfires blankets the city.



Climbers on the Sydney Harbour Bridge as smoke haze from bushfires blankets the city. Photograph: Steven Saphore/EPA

‘Summer is likely to get more dangerous’

The long-term impacts of the smoke are unknown, Johnston says.

“What we don’t know with fires is how much is too much, and how long is too long, because there is just no long-term research.”

Johnston has researched the health impact on children arising from the Hazelwood coalmine fire in Victoria in 2014, which lasted longer than 45 days and caused worse air quality conditions than Sydney is currently experiencing. It has shown unborn children and those under the age of one in the Morwell area have had stiffer lungs and more coughs and colds during their childhood.

“It’s a tiny effect … it might not be of huge clinical importance, but the fact that we measured it means we need to take it seriously and if you’re able to reduce the exposure of children and pregnant women, it is responsible.”

The executive director of the Climate and Health Alliance, Fiona Armstrong, says that as climate change exacerbates the conditions in summer, the effects on health will become more noticeable.

“It’s really the extreme weather events that are going to have the biggest impact on people’s health,” she says.

“Over the long term, I guess you could say summer is likely to get more dangerous for people’s health.”

For now, Johnston says, the best people can do is to limit their exposure. Face masks have proliferated in city streets, although experts recommend that in most cases they are all but useless to protect against the tiny particles carried by bushfire smoke. Johnston advises people to stay in air-conditioning where possible, such as in the office or a library.

The stereotypical beachside Australian summer seems a long way off.





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