Sydney’s air pollution is so bad it’s setting off fire alarms

Thick smoke from wildfires shroud the Harbour Bridge. (AP pic)

SYDNEY: Bushfire smoke smothered Sydney on Tuesday, setting off fire alarms, suspending ferry services and triggering health warnings over choking air pollution.

The Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge were barely discernible through the thick haze enveloping the city, with smoke stinging the eyes and making it difficult to breathe.

The Air Quality Index compiled by the state environment department reached as high as 2,552 in some eastern suburbs – soaring past the “hazardous” threshold of 200.

The pollution has been so bad it has set off smoke alarms in office buildings across the CBD, while ash has been washing up on the city’s usually pristine beaches. Flight arrivals at Sydney Airport were delayed by up to 30 minutes due to poor visibility.

Authorities warned people with respiratory conditions, or heart and lung problems, to stay indoors.

Temperatures are forecast to soar to 42°C in the city’s west. Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who is leading efforts to tackle more than 80 blazes across the state of New South Wales, said it would be a “very complex, very difficult day” for his team.

Some 2.7 million hectares of land, with a perimeter of 19,235km, have been burnt so far this bushfire season.

The ferocious and early start to the fires this year has stoked a debate around whether Australia’s government – a champion of the coal industry – is doing enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has repeatedly shut down claims that his government’s approach to climate change has contributed in any material way to the current bushfire emergency.

“Let’s call it for what it is: these bushfires have been caused by extreme weather events, high temperatures, the worst drought in living memory – the exact type of events scientists have been warning us about for decades that would have been caused by climate change,” said Matt Kean, the NSW state minister for energy and environment.