International

Sydney chokes on smoke as Oz burns

While New Zealand struggles with the volcano tragedy, Australia too, is in the grip of its own disaster. Bushfires in New South Wales have killed 6 people and destroyed nearly 700 homes. Newsroom’s Mark Jennings is currently in Sydney which is blanketed in thick grey smoke.

The downtown Sydney building where I am attending a conference this week has a fine view of the city’s famous harbour. The water is just a few hundred metres away but on Tuesday you couldn’t see it.

A curtain of smoky haze is drawn around the high rise buildings and only the most adjacent towers are visible. It is eerie.

The locals attending the conference consult their phones. Everybody here has the app Fires Near Me NSW. The information it provides is comprehensive. The closest major fire is 60 km away from Sydney but it feels closer.

The fire is burning in the Yengo and Dharug National Parks, plus a state forest and is more than 31,000 hectares in size. Yesterday, it was getting worse as a southerly change pushed it further north and east.

When I looked at the app it was warning people in two small communities stuck in the fires' path that it is too late to evacuate and that they needed to seek shelter immediately.

This fire is right next to an even bigger one. Local media describe it as a “Mega Blaze” which has so far burnt through 110,000 hectares. That’s an area 10 times the size of Wellington.

The map of Northern New South Wales is dotted with fire symbols, many of these fires are still “out of control” according to the app.

Back in Sydney the thick smoke is literally choking the city.

Tourists at the Opera House. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The NSW Health Director of Environmental Health, Dr Richard Broome, told the ABC the situation was impacting people's breathing. Patients visiting NSW hospitals is up 25 percent.

“The smoke here in Sydney is extremely bad today [Tuesday], it is some of the worst air quality we've seen…this smoky period we’ve been experiencing for the past month or so is unprecedented, so these conditions are a risk to people’s health."

Thousands of construction workers have walked off the job, according to the NSW branch of their union.

Union official Thomas Costa told the Sydney Morning Herald nobody, apart from emergency service workers who had accepted the risk, should be forced to work outside because of the hazardous level of smoke.

"The current level of toxicity in the air is 10 times the safe working limit," he said. "The union movement will be supporting any union member who refuses to work in these conditions."

The Air Quality Index (AQI) rating at a monitoring site in the suburb of Randwick was 2149 — almost 11 times the threshold for what is considered "hazardous air quality".

The University of New South Wales closed one of its buildings after several fire alarms triggered by the smoke forced students from two of its campuses.

Pitt Street Mall. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Many people on the streets are wearing masks. The 10 minute walk to the conference from my hotel left my eyes stinging.

The iconic ferries that move tens of thousands on Sydney harbour stopped running on Monday morning because the visibility was so bad. Buses were being organised but the city’s transport system is under pressure. Businesses are sending staff home early or in some cases telling them not to come to work.

Cancellation sign at Circular Quay. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Air traffic has also been affected. Planes into Sydney airport were arriving up to 30 minutes late due to low visibility operating requirements and slower movement on the ground.

How much of Australia has been burnt in the current bushfire season? The answer is a staggering 2.7 million hectares. An ABC journalist tried to put it in real world terms saying “you could fit most of the 137 islands which make up the Hawaiian archipelago into the area affected by the NSW fires.”

In New Zealand terms, the area is bigger than the whole of the Waikato. The fires have drawn an almost unprecedented attack, from the world’s media, on the Australian Government and its leader Scott Morrison.

A New York Times columnist said it looks “as if the country were being devoured by a chemical reaction”.

Award-winning novelist Anna Funder said the failure of the government to acknowledge the current climate crisis “is literally choking our children”.

“The response has been to double-down on denialism,” director of the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney, David Schlosberg, told the paper.

Readers of The Guardian also laid into Morrison “Oh look. Scott Morrison’s climate policy in glorious technicolour” said one, and another saying, “This looks like hell.”

Climate Scientist Sarah Perkins-Kilpatrick was reported as saying “Here we are in the worst bushfire season we’ve ever seen, the biggest drought we’ve ever had, Sydney surrounded by smoke, and we’ve not heard a boo out of a politician addressing climate change. They’re burying their heads in the sand while the world is literally burning around them and that’s the scary thing. “

The even scarier thing for many Australians is that the country is not yet halfway through the bushfire season.

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