'Unliveable': Hazardous smoke turns capital city into 'ghost town'

Canberra has again woken to the worst air pollution in the world after thick smog turned the relatively quiet capital into a “ghost town” on the weekend.

For days, the bushfires raging along the NSW south coast have forced residents in Canberra to brave hazardous conditions, forcing many to stay home, businesses to close and flights to be cancelled.

Smoke rolled through on Saturday and reached its worst level on Sunday as shops closed and Qantas flights at Canberra airport were grounded.

Empty streets are seen as smoke haze impacts the city centre early morning in Canberra, Sunday, January 5. Source: AAP/Lukas Coch
Empty streets are seen as smoke haze impacts the city centre early morning in Canberra, Sunday, January 5. Source: AAP/Lukas Coch

“Canberra, Australia’s capital, awakes this morning as a ghost town blanketed with heavy smoke from the fires,” wrote CSIRO researcher Dr Pep Canadell on Sunday on Twitter.

“Highest pollution levels ever recorded, after breaking the temperature record yesterday at 43.6C. Unliveable city.”

Residents have complained of being unable to breath and suffering from headaches, even while staying indoors.

Meanwhile P2 masks had to be rushed into the city to meet demand, in particular for vulnerable residents who suffer from respiratory issues. The conditions can worsen asthma and even lead to a heart attack or stroke, authorities warn.

On Thursday, an elderly woman reportedly died in Canberra after going into respiratory stress after exiting a plane at Canberra airport.

For those in the city still looking to buy a mask, the Canberra Times has published a list of outlets where they are available as of Monday afternoon.

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Monday morning saw parts of the city still choking on pollution 12 times the level considered hazardous.

While conditions have improved from Sunday, Canberra still held the unenviable position of worst global air quality early this afternoon.

The town’s NRL grand finalists, the Canberra Raiders, have joined the sporting exodus from the nation's smoke-choked capital, moving pre-season training to Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

They follow Super Rugby's Brumbies who have relocated to Newcastle due to health concerns for their players from the bushfire smoke.

Somewhat ironically, the department responsible for coordinating Australia's response to disasters and emergency management has closed its doors due to poor air quality.

Canberra's pollution rating topped Delhi on Monday afternoon. Source: IQAir
Canberra's pollution rating topped Delhi on Monday afternoon. Source: IQAir

The Department of Home Affairs has told staff to stay home as thick bushfire smoke blankets Canberra.

Staff have been told to stay away from Canberra headquarters for 48 hours, but some essential employees will work from other locations.

The Department of Health relocated staff in Canberra to other offices in the city due to the smoke but otherwise operated as normal.

Visitors to Parliament House forced to wear face masks on Sunday. Source: Alex Ellinghausen/Getty
Visitors to Parliament House forced to wear face masks on Sunday. Source: Alex Ellinghausen/Getty

Meanwhile the National Gallery of Australia remained closed to the public and workers were also told to stay home Monday as silk covers were used to protect paintings and artworks from the deleterious smoke. The gallery is hosting an exhibition of Matisse and Picasso featuring international works and the gallery can’t take chances of smoke entering the building.

Canberra childcare centres also closed due to the poor air quality in the capital, the AAP reported. YWCA Canberra said the decision to close all its centres in the capital was to protect staff and children from the hazardous air.

A tourist takes pictures of the haze in Canberra on January 2. Source: AAP
A tourist takes pictures of the haze in Canberra on January 2. Source: AAP

Shops, museums and recreational facilities all shut their doors across the capital as air quality deteriorated on the weekend.

Many resident took to social media sharing images of thick smog producing eerie scenes on the largely empty streets.

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Meanwhile Qantas say normals services have resumed after the airline was forced to cancel all flights at Canberra Airport on Sunday due to the intense smoke.

Earlier, Australia Post also cancelled deliveries in the capital, citing worker safety, leaving the local State Emergency Service to deliver particulate-filter masks to shops with depleted stocks.

- with AAP

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