Acrid smoke triggers panic, alarms

Acrid smoke triggers panic, alarms

10 December 2006

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Australia — Most of Victoria will be gripped by a suffocating smog over thenext few days while the state’s bushfires rage, authorities warned last night.

Environment Protection Authority chairman Mick Bourke said the thick smokehaze that blanketed much of the state yesterday was just a taste of things tocome.

Mr Bourke said smoke and dust particles from the fires had been recorded at10 times higher than usual levels.

“These particles are amongst the highest we’ve ever seen and I suspectthese conditions will continue for some days,” Mr Bourke told The SundayAge. He said young children, the elderly and people with respiratoryproblems were particularly vulnerable. “If you’re asthmatic or havebronchitis or a weakened heart, they’re the sort of people that are most at risk.”

Bureau of Meteorology spokesman Terry Ryan said the poor visibility caused bysmoke was worse than he had seen in more than 20 years.

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Dr Robert Hall, said the excessive smokelevels could bring about a significant increase in respiratory symptoms andaggravate conditions such as asthma.

“It is likely that everyone in the community will be affected. Theyshould avoid prolonged or heavy exertion and stay indoors whenever possible,”Dr Hall said. “If anyone is at all concerned about symptoms they may beexperiencing, they should seek medical advice.”

The thick smoke haze yesterday caused widespread panic, with hundreds ofpeople jamming the emergency 000 number fearing their homes were on fire afterwaking to the acrid smell of smoke.

Police Commissioner Christine Nixon was forced to appeal to the public to usethe 000 number only for emergencies.

Fire brigade officers were called out to dozens of homes where smoke alarmshad been triggered.

Flights in and out of Melbourne Airport were delayed for up to an hourbecause of problems with visibility and the triggering of alarms. Smoke alarmsset off at the airport’s baggage handling centre caused headaches for groundstaff, while the air traffic control tower had to be evacuated for 20 minutesafter another alarm went off.

A Qantas flight from Los Angeles was diverted to Sydney and a domestic flightfrom Sydney diverted to Canberra to pick up extra fuel because of long delays tolanding in Melbourne.

The smoke levels peaked at 10.30am in Melbourne before dropping back duringthe day.

More smoke was expected to drift towards the city last night as strong windsfanned the fires. In the Latrobe Valley, smoke levels were increasing because ofnortherly winds. Towns in East Gippsland had good visibility, but this wasexpected to deteriorate today as the fires worsen.

“Conditions are quite severe,” Mr Bourke said. “As long as thewarm winds and high temperatures continue, it is likely we’ll see prolonged hazyconditions and lack of visibility.”

In Melbourne, the Bureau of Meteorology building at Docklands and a Southbankbuilding were both evacuated after fire alarms were set off by the smoke haze.

Royal Children’s Hospital spokeswoman Julie Webber said a number of familieshad sought help for children with respiratory problems but she could not say ifthis had been caused by the smoke haze.

At Albert Park Lake, Carousel cafe director Asaf Smoli said the smokecombined with a hot day had not been good for business.

“It does take away from the whole perspective of what we offer customers.You can’t see Eureka Tower, the CBD — I have never seen it like this,” MrSmoli said.

At the Rialto Towers observation deck, tourists failed to get much value formoney when hoping to take in the city views.

Having paid $14.50 to get to the building’s Level 55 for 360-degree panoramicviews of Melbourne, there was little to see because of the smoke.

Natalie Dunnion, 22, of Scotland, said she could not believe how thick thesmoke haze was considering how far the fires were from the city. Visibility fromthe observation deck was restricted to a few hundred metres.

“The smoke’s really bad. You can really smell it when you’re walkingaround,” said Ms Dunnion, who arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday to visitfriends.

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