Hazardous bushfire smoke has caused chaos in Melbourne, forcing public pools to shut down, horse racing to be abandoned, tradies to walk off the job and delays to the start of the Australian Open qualifiers.
Victorians started Tuesday breathing in some of the worst air in the world due to smoke blowing down from bushfires in the state's east and NSW.
The thick blanket of smoke is stretching through fire-ravaged Gippsland, past Melbourne to Geelong, prompting people to seek shelter inside and setting off fire alarms.
For the first four hours of Tuesday, fine particles in the air were deemed hazardous before dropping to very poor.
Former world tennis no.1 Maria Sharapova struggled in the heat and smoke, with her Kooyong Classic match called off late in the second set.
Taking on German Laura Siegemund in the Australian Open warm-up tournament, the players and officials decided to stop play at 5-5 in the second set.
In the Australian Open qualifiers in Melbourne, Dalila Jakupovic was forced to retire from her match on Tuesday after appearing to have a coughing fit.
CFMEU, the state’s construction union, has urged all builders to stop their outdoor work, according to the ABC.
Sunday vs This morning (same spot) pic.twitter.com/SicWgKkQ3b
— Brehensen & Sledges 🙂👍 (@k_morrissey) January 13, 2020
A spokesman said the smoke was not only effecting the tradies’ health, but reduced their visibility.
Eight horse races at Werribee were cancelled on Tuesday morning because of poor air quality.
More than 110 breathing-relating calls were made to Ambulance Victoria between midnight to 11am, while metropolitan firefighters responded to 220 false alarms since 10pm Monday.
Senior forecaster for the Bureau of Meteorology Dean Stewart said southwest winds on Wednesday should start lifting the smoke haze, but will also bring sporadic thunderstorms.
Health risks of bushfire smoke
The state's Chief Health Officer, Dr Brett Sutton, said while the air quality level remained hazardous, everyone including healthy people were at risk.
But vulnerable groups - children aged under 14, people over 65 years, pregnant women and those with pre-existing medical conditions - should take extra care and stay inside.
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, which represents more than 17,000 doctors, says Australia is in uncharted territory when it comes to assessing the long-term health effects of the current bushfire season.
Davila Jakupovic retires after suffering a horrendous coughing fit and breathing difficulties in the heavy, polluted air in Melbourne. Awful scenes pic.twitter.com/EPQUlf9DpF
— Simon Briggs (@simonrbriggs) January 14, 2020
Respiratory expert and RACP president-elect Professor John Wilson said a comprehensive and coordinated public health response was needed.
"This is an unprecedented public health crisis and we don't yet know the impact this prolonged exposure to bushfire smoke is going to have," he said.
"Since the bushfire crisis began, doctors have already seen an increase in patients presenting with respiratory issues.
"It's critical that there is a comprehensive and coordinated response to this health crisis, and that all who need healthcare have timely access to expert health services."
It is crucial to also keep mental health impacts in mind when considering the effects of the bushfire disaster, Professor Wilson said.
Firefighters granted brief reprieve
While the cooler air has spread the thick smoke, it has allowed for fire crews to ramp up containment lines and relief efforts for the communities hit by fire across East Gippsland and the northeast.
There are 16 fires still burning in Victoria and 1.4 million hectares burnt, killing four men and destroying 353 homes and 548 other structures.
Fires at Cann River and Tamboon in East Gippsland and at Abbeyard in the high country continue to be the most active, with watch and act alerts issued for all.
Firefighters have been helped by the military in clearing roads to get land access to cut-off communities, which have been only accessible by air or sea for two weeks.
Canadian and US firefighters are also helping in the alpine region fires.
The state government on Tuesday announced a $2.55 million inquiry into the fires, led by inspectorate general of emergency management Tony Pearce.
Premier Daniel Andrews said the inquiry was the right level of response because the fire season still had months to go and Victoria already held a royal commission into the 2009 Black Saturday fires.
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