A blanket of hazardous smoke has settled over Sydney, setting off smoke alarms and sending thousands to buy face masks, as thousands of firefighters around New South Wales continue to battle blazes.
At least 2.7 million hectares have burned across the state since the 2019 bushfire season began, according to the Rural Fire Service, including a “mega fire” still burning on Tuesday afternoon north of Sydney. Many people have bought face masks as the air quality index reaches as high as 12 times hazardous levels.
For weeks the setting sun has been bright red.
“Today’s ridiculous smoke was the tipping point for buying a mask,” Sydneysider Nick Parmenter told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday afternoon.
The 34-year-old’s wife is seven months pregnant and they are taking extra precautions.
“It’s clear that this could go on for some time so we don’t want to take any chances,” he said.
Parmenter made sure the mask was PM2.5 rated, meaning it can block out particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less.
NSW Health warns these particles, which increase in concentration during bushfires and dust storms, are “so small they can get deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream”.
“I’ve definitely felt more and more anxious as the situation has developed, particularly about the effects for our baby — both health-wise and for the world they’ll be born into,” Parmenter said.
“There’s a helplessness too, made worse by the fact that our leaders seem so uninterested in what is clearly a genuine and ongoing crisis.”
Many offices, worksites and university campuses in Sydney were evacuated on Tuesday.
Marketing manager Emma McGarry was forced to evacuate from her Darlinghurst office after the fire alarm went off twice.
“The smoke is making everyone feel generally unwell,” McGarry told BuzzFeed News. “It’s affecting anyone with existing breathing problems much more obviously, but generally it just feels more difficult to ‘be’ without even doing anything physically, it feels like an effort to breathe.”
Her friends and family had opted out of “regular activities” like playing sports outdoors to avoid “headaches, dry throat, coughing, sneezing and nausea”.
McGarry said it felt “quite catastrophic to wake up every day to the smell of smoke”.
“It is definitely creating a feeling of general anxiety amongst most people I’m in contact with,” she said. “Also [there is] a general feeling of frustration that our government isn’t doing more… this should be treated as a national crisis with a nationally coordinated response.”
Prime minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday dismissed questions about whether the government should increase resources for the bushfire response and said volunteer firefighting services did not need to be professionalised.
The NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said it was a “very dangerous day” for the state.
“We can’t underestimate what it can be like over summer,” Berejiklian said.
“As the conditions get hotter and drier, and also the wind picks up, this again is giving us a taste of what we’re likely to experience in the next few months.”