Melbourne chokes on fire haze

Melbourne chokes on fire haze

14 December 2006

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Australia — Smoke from Victoria’s bushfires choked Melbourne yesterday,forcing schoolkids to stay inside and sparking a run on breathing masks.

The Metropolitan Ambulance Service received 44 calls to 1pm from people inrespiratory distress.

The ghostly blanket descended as prevailing winds mixed smoke from Victoria’sbushfires, blazes in Tasmania and remnant smoke from NSW. It was not expected tolift fully before this afternoon.

Victoria’s chief health officer, Dr Robert Hall, urged Melburnians to keepout of the smoke, especially asthmatics, those with heart and respiratoryproblems, children and the elderly.

“We advise people to avoid prolonged or heavy physical activity and stayindoors whenever possible,” Dr Hall said.

“If it gets too smoky inside people’s homes they could take a break inan airconditioned location . . . like a shopping centre or local library.”

Asthma Foundation of Victoria chief executive Robin Ould said many peoplecalled in distress asking how best to deal with the smoke.

Mr Ould said surgical or dust-filter breathing masks were available fromchemists or hardware stores.

As the thick smoke blocked out the sun:

Many schools banned sport and outside play during lunch and recess.

Motorists slowed down by up to 20km/h on freeways around the city.

The 000 emergency phone line was flooded with calls from people in Melbourneconcerned about the level of smoke.

The smoke seeped through airconditioning into Melbourne homes and officebuildings.

The EPA said air quality was 10 times poorer than average.

Despite forecasts of a 28C maximum for Melbourne yesterday, the mercuryreached just 23C at 3.45pm.

“The smoke was just so thick that it blocked the sun out,” seniorforecaster Scott Williams said.

“We’ve never had smoke last all day like a fog and effect thetemperature five degrees or more.

“It’s considerably thicker and much longer-lived than the weekend, andit’s spread out over a much wider area of Victoria.”

Visibility was down to 3km in the city and Melbourne Airport yesterday, aslow as 1km in Ballarat, 2km in Kilmore and 8km in Mildura. Normal visibility is15km-20km.

EPA regional services executive director Bruce Dawson said the smokecontained fine microscopic particles of soot from burning timber.

“The concern is those very fine particles can get right down intopeople’s lungs,” Mr Dawson said.

The EPA regularly samples Victoria’s air to measure the amount of fineparticles.

The 24-hour goal in Melbourne is for a reading of 50 micrograms, or 50millionths of a gram, of fine particles a cubic metre of air.

Yesterday, some of the hourly readings peaked as high as 240 micrograms –but levels were not as high as the weekend.

“Saturday was one of the highest levels of very fine particles evermeasured,” Mr Dawson said.

Federal Labor leader Kevin Rudd was due to fly to bushfire-affected areas inthe state’s northeast, but heavy smoke around Essendon Airport delayed hisflight for hours.

VicRoads urged drivers to take extra care.

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