Inquiry hears toll of NSW bushfire smoke

Jodie Stephens

When Courtney Partridge-McLennan went to bed for the night and bushfire smoke enveloped her NSW town, she wasn't experiencing any asthma symptoms.

But the 19-year-old, who had never required hospitalisation for her asthma, died in her Glen Innes bedroom in November 2019 after suffering a "quite aggressive" attack.

Ms Partridge-McLennan was found in her bed with her phone torchlight on and her reliever medication close by.

"She did not have time to ask for help ... I believe that she probably woke up mid-asthma attack," her sister, Cherylleigh Partridge, told a NSW parliamentary inquiry into air quality on Wednesday.

Ms Partridge, who also has asthma, said it was only after her sister's death that she began to see reports regarding hazardous air quality during the bushfire season.

"As far as her understanding of the harmfulness of bushfire smoke, the communities out here ... don't have air quality monitoring the same way that metropolitan areas do," she said.

"It wasn't until after my sister's passing, and the South Coast fires kind of took off ... where I began to see in the media that people were being recommended to wear P2 masks and to stay inside and activate air filters if they had access to them."

Ms Partridge was giving evidence before a NSW upper house committee looking into the health impacts of poor air quality resulting from bushfires and drought.

Asthma Australia chief executive Michele Goldman told the inquiry smoke exposure impacts had been largely invisible and underestimated - but the health consequences need to be taken seriously.

The organisation is calling for a number of changes following the summer's devastating bushfire season.

Asthma Australia wants more air quality testing stations, including in regional, rural and remote areas, and the consideration of temporary stations in more locations during extended periods of poor air quality.

Ms Goldman said they also recommended an air smart campaign addressing the dangers of smoke, much like the SunSmart campaign raised public awareness of skin cancer risks and prevention.

"We're seeing the intensity and duration of fires increasing, we're now starting to understand the true health impacts of exposure to smoke," she told the inquiry on Wednesday.

"We need to ensure that the community both understand the potentially harmful impacts ... and we need to give them the tools to be able to understand what air quality is like at any given time, on any given day in any given jurisdiction, and to have strategies that they can put in place to protect themselves."

Other Asthma Australia recommendations include the development of a uniform approach to measuring and reporting air quality across the country and NSW government action to mitigate climate change.

The inquiry continues.