Sydney blanketed in smoke again

Sydney blanketed in smoke again

02 November 2013

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Australia — A smoke haze caused by bushfires and subsequent backburning in the north and west of NSW that blanketed Sydney on Saturday saw air quality deteriorate and pollution levels soar 15 times above normal levels in one Sydney suburb, putting at risk people with health conditions.

The smoke also set off hundreds of automatic smoke alarms — all false alarms — in and around the city, increasing the number of callouts for NSW Fire and Rescue from an average of 15 a day to more than 200 within a two hour period. It also increased the number of ambulance callouts.

“I can confirm that paramedics have attended people who were suffering from the smoke and [from] breathing problems,” an Ambulance NSW spokeswoman said.

Several trains were also stopped for a number of minutes at Central Station when a smoke alarm went off in a Sydney signal box. After Sydney Train staff checked to see whether there was a fire and discovered there wasn’t, services returned to normal.

“There were slight flow-on delays,” a spokesman for Sydney Trains said.

According to Inspector Ben Shepherd, a spokesman for the NSW Rural Fire Service, the smoke haze was caused by fires burning around the Hawkesbury and Blue Mountains region.

“Those fires are still burning and will do so for a while yet,” he said.

The smoke had blown into the city on a north-westerly, Inspector Shepherd said early on Saturday. At about 9.30am he predicted it to “clear over the next few hours”.

‘‘[The smoke] got trapped underneath some cloud cover this morning … but it should clear over the next few hours once it actually starts to warm up a bit,’’ he said.

Places in the city’s north, such as Lindfield, reported pollution readings on Saturday morning as high as 828 — about 15 times above normal levels — on the Air Quality Index, compared with a typical reading of about 50 for Sydney, according to monitoring by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Above 100 is considered poor air quality while above 200 is considered hazardous. Randwick reported pollution readings as high as 816, Rozelle, 423, Chullora, 124, Earlwood, 224, St Marys, 141, and Earlwood 151.

Matthew Riley, director of Climate and Atmospheric Science at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, warned that if people were susceptible to poor air quality they should limit their exercise.

“This is one of many days of high pollution that we’ve experienced during these bushfire events,” Mr Riley said. “We would ask that people who are susceptible to poor air quality to continue to visit the OEH website and check the latest information on current air pollution levels in their area.”

He said NSW only experienced levels of air pollution like on Saturday during extreme events such as bushfires and dust storms. “We don’t witness these levels of air pollution other than during those events,” he said.

The NSW Health website warns that children, older adults and people with heart and lung conditions are most susceptible to the effects of air pollution. The best way to avoid breathing in the smoke is to remain inside with the windows and doors closed, it says.

Inspector Wayne Phillips, of NSW Fire and Rescue, said between 10am and 12pm firefighters responded to more than 200 automatic fire alarms going off in Sydney “mostly around the city”.

Some had resulted in evacuations of residential buildings and office blocks, Inspector Phillips said.

“[It’s a] crazy amount of calls for us. We [normally] get about 15 a day in the city,” he said.

Of the 200 or so alarms that had gone off, none were due to an actual fire.

“We have to attend every single one of them … it’s an imperative that we go because if we don’t go and there ends up being a fire it could be very tragic.

“It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

Because of the large number of callouts, response times would “be a bit slower than normal”, Inspector Phillips said.

“[Those with alarms going off] should still check and make sure they don’t have a fire in their premises and just be patient if it’s going off in their building [and know] that we will attend to reset the [alarm].”

Rob Sharpe, a meteorologist for Weatherzone, which is owned by Fairfax Media, said visibility and air quality should improve by 2pm as a sea breeze developed and pushed the smoke further inland and up into the earth’s atmosphere.

“We’re expecting it to gradually dissipate over the next couple of hours as the sea breeze develops,” Sharpe said just before 12pm. “That will bring in cleaner air from offshore.”

Mr Sharpe said air quality deteriorated during the morning due to smoke filtering in from the west with light westerly winds. It caused “much” of Sydney’s east to experience hazardous air quality, with Lindfield in the space of an hour going from a pollution reading of 28 to 589.

“This smoke has been trapped down near the surface due to an inversion,” he said. “So there’s warmer air above the air at the surface and that’s trapping all the smoke down at the surface.”

As of early Saturday morning there were 43 bushfires burning across NSW, 15 of which remain uncontained.

Fighting them are approximately 500 firefighters, who would be out in the field on Saturday, Inspector Shepherd said.

Areas around the Clarence Valley and Hawkesbury regions were where the bushfires were having the most impact.

The Blue Mountains region was also being watched closely, Inspector Shepherd said.

‘‘Firefighters will continue to patrol those fires — even though they’re contained — over the coming days given the more deteriorating weather which will start today with very high fire conditions,’’ he said.

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