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Sydney choked in smoke as fires rage in New South Wales

by Tom McKay, Gizmodo |

The city of Sydney – Australia’s most populous and the capital of New South Wales state – was swathed in thick smoke Tuesday morning amid more than 50 bushfires on the state’s east coast, the Guardian reported.

According to the Guardian, the smoke over Sydney mostly came “from a huge fire at Gospers Mountain” northwest of the city, with the coming days looking little better with temperatures expected to rise to around 104 degrees Fahrenheit and accompanied by little or no rainfall.

Twenty-eight of the fires were classified as uncontained Tuesday morning, the paper wrote, with the “Greater Sydney, Greater Hunter, Illawarra/Shoalhaven, Southern Ranges and Central Ranges fire regions” under severe fire risk. Wide swathes of the rest of eastern NSW and Australian Capital Territory were classified as facing very high fire risk.

The Australian fire season has crept earlier every year, and in 2019 has reached what fire officials say is new peaks in terms of breadth and intensity. Six people are dead and over 2.5 million acres (roughly one million hectares) have burned. There is near-unanimous scientific agreement that hot, dry, and windy conditions associated with climate change are helping drive the blazes.

The Guardian reported this year that an analysis of 44 years of data from 39 weather stations confirmed “the strength of the relationship between climate drivers such as El Niño, climate change and the Australian bushfire season,” noting that periodic lulls in the strength of fires associated with multi-year El Niño cycles are not evidence otherwise.

“Unprecedented dryness; reductions in long-term rainfall; low humidity; high temperatures; wind velocities; fire danger indices; fire spread and ferocity; instances of pyro-convective fires (firestorms – making their own weather); early starts and late finishes to bushfire seasons,” former NSW fire and rescue commissioner Greg Mullins wrote in a recent op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald. “An established long-term trend driven by a warming, drying climate.”

“If anyone tells you, ‘This is part of a normal cycle’ or ‘We’ve had fires like this before,’” Mullins added, “smile politely and walk away, because they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

The Gospers Mountain fire alone has burned nearly 300,000 acres (around 120,000 hectares), according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, with environmental regulators saying that levels of smoke in northwest Sydney, the northwest slopes, and the northern tablelands had taken air quality beyond “hazardous” levels. In the worst-hit areas air pollution was two to three times the national standard, with little hope of letting up as the Australian fire season started early this year.

Al Jazeera reported that readings of PM 2.5 particulates, which can penetrate deeply into lung tissue, reached 186 parts per million on the air quality index. That’s equivalent to New Delhi, which is often ranked as the most polluted city on the planet.

The greater Sydney region is facing water restrictions, with warnings that reservoirs could be depleted in just three years. Thousands of firefighters are out attempting to control the blazes, though Monday they were “battling a firefront of some 6,000 kilometers, the equivalent distance of a return Sydney-Perth trip,” according to the Guardian.

The Department of Health’s Richard Broome told ABC that most people should expect only minor symptoms like red eyes or coughing, though other people with lung ailments including asthma and emphysema may be at higher risk.

Per NBC News, NSW officials declared a fire emergency throughout the entire state earlier this month due to the risk of “catastrophic” fires unprecedented in recorded history. At the time, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned residents that the bushfires could spread quickly enough to trap the unwary.

“For heaven’s sake, stay away from bushland tomorrow,” Berejiklian told reporters. “You might think you are okay and a few minutes later you won’t be.”

Police in the region also cautioned residents to stay wary and evacuate quickly, NBC wrote, as “There are simply not enough fire trucks for every house. If you call for help, you may not get it.”

The current Australian government under Liberal Party Prime Minister Scott Morrison has responded mainly with denials that the problem is that bad and pledges to ban boycott campaigns aimed at Australia’s lucrative mining sector.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack recently went on the warpath against “raving inner-city lunatics,” claiming that those affected by the fires “don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they’re trying to save their homes, when in fact they’re going out in many cases saving other peoples’ homes and leaving their own homes at risk.”