Far from the flames, millions of Australians breathe unhealthy air this summer while smoke from the country's disastrous forest fires clouds the skies from Sydney to Canberra and Melbourne.
Narendra Shrestha / EPA, through Shutterstock
The capital of Australia, Canberra, has been covered by a thick fog of smoke from nearby fires for more than a week.
The city recorded its worst air quality day on January 2, with dangerous contamination readings of fine particles that shot at more than 200 micrograms per cubic meter on average during the worst hour, according to Berkeley Earth, a research group without profit that adds air data. Quality monitoring sites. The readings of the day averaged almost 100 micrograms per cubic meter, a level considered "unhealthy" according to the air quality standards developed by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Normally, air pollution in the city is low.
Air quality based on PM2.5
Southeast Australia is experiencing one of the worst recorded fire seasons, with hundreds of fires in the states of New South Wales and Victoria.
The fires have razed millions of acres since October, destroying more than a thousand homes and killing at least 19 people, including three volunteer firefighters.
[See where Australia’s wildfires are currently burning.]
Forest fires release air pollutants such as carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide, which can damage the health of nearby residents and firefighters on the front lines. Another byproduct of combustion, the fine particle contamination known as PM2.5 because the particles are less than 2.5 micrometers wide, can be transported over long distances.
Landing on instruments today … this is Canberra, 6pm in summer pic.twitter.com/zxFJGWyxZA
– MarnieHW (@Marnie_HW) January 1, 2020
Breathing these small particles can make asthma and other respiratory disorders worse, and cause heart attacks and strokes, among many other health effects. The high levels of PM2.5 contamination are particularly harmful for the elderly, the very young and people with compromised immune systems.
An elderly woman reportedly died Thursday after suffering respiratory distress when she got off a plane at Canberra airport.
David Gray / Agence France-Presse – Getty Images
Smoke from fires has dirtied Sydney's air intermittently since November. The city recorded its worst air quality day last month, when fine particles reached unhealthy levels. During the hour of greatest pollution, PM2.5 readings reached almost 400 micrograms per cubic meter, a level considered dangerous for 24 hours.
Air quality based on PM2.5
Hospital visits due to respiratory problems increased during the period, according to local authorities. The stores were sold without air purifiers and protective masks when residents rushed to protect against contamination.
But the dangerous air pollution "is not always obvious," said Brian Oliver, a respiratory disease expert at the Sydney University of Technology. "It's not just when the sky is cloudy and you can't see ahead. It's when the skies can be clear but the pollution levels are five to 10 times higher than normal."
A coalition of more than 20 medical groups, including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, which represents 25,000 doctors and apprentices, issued a statement last month declaring high levels of particle contamination in Sydney as a "public health emergency" and asking the government to address climate change.
"The dangerous air pollution of the New South Wales forest fires is one of the ways in which people's health is being harmed by climate change at the moment," said Fiona Armstrong, executive director of the Climate Alliance and Health, a defense group in Australia.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists organized by the United Nations, found that southern Australia is likely to see a higher risk of fire as the world warms as a result of burning fossil fuels .
Mark Kolbe / Getty Images
James D. Morgan / Getty Images
Through Australia and beyond
On Friday, smoke from fires in eastern Victoria had reached more than 100 miles west of Melbourne. To the east, misty skies were reported across the Tasmanian Sea in New Zealand.
But the air quality has been worse near the flames.
The photographs of those evacuated against the orange and red skies have appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world and have circulated on social networks. Thousands of people, many with facial masks, were evacuated from Mallacoota, a vacation destination in eastern Victoria, after fires threatened the area. (Air pollution readings are not available for the area due to poor coverage of the monitoring station).
Tens of thousands more fled before the weekend when meteorologists warned of rising fire conditions.
"We have no capacity to contain these fires," Rob Rogers, deputy commissioner of the Rural Fire Service of New South Wales, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "We just need to make sure people aren't in front of them."
Shane Cameron / Agence France-Presse – Getty Images
Sean Davey / Agence France-Presse – Getty Images