Australian firefighters say ‘we can’t perform miracles’ as Sydney suffers unprecedented pollution

Firefighters staged an unprecedented protest outside Australian Parliament today calling for more resources and action on climate change, as a senior firefighter said the brigade could not "perform miracles". 

Residents were being evacuated from their homes as bushfires ravaged the outskirts of Sydney as Australia’s bushfire crisis continues.

In New South Wales alone more than 7,000 fires have burnt through more than two million hectares since July, killing six people and destroying 673 homes.

On Thursday a group of firefighters held a protest and media conference in front of Parliament House demanding action on climate change and more resources for firefighting services. 

Mick Tisbury, Commander at the Metropolitan Fire Brigade and a veteran of more than 30 years as a firefighter, said the severe conditions caused by historically bad rainfall and high temperatures are “absolutely demoralising”.

“We are fearful of the fire season we are going to cop – we’ll do the best we can but we can’t perform miracles. People are going to lose their properties – unfortunately, people will probably lose their lives – it won’t be from lack of trying but that’s just the reality,” he told local media.

Smoke haze from bushfires in New South Wales engulfs Sydney Credit: STEVEN SAPHORE/EPA-EFE/REX

On the same day as the protest, NSW Rural Fire Service issued emergency warnings for fires in six regions and the Bureau of Meteorology issued a road safety alert for Sydney because of smoke affecting visibility. 

Evacuation advice was issued for residents near the fire at Gospers Mountain, which has burnt through 230,000 hectares of land on the outskirts of Sydney.  The RFS warned anyone in the Colo Heights area that it is too late to leave and that residents should seek shelter as the fire approaches.

The smoke in Sydney is now three times worse than any bushfire season in the past five years. 

In the past five years there were only five instances of a daily maximum Air Quality Index above 100 in Greater Sydney. In November and December so far there have been more than 20 readings above 200, which indicates "hazardous" air quality.

On Tuesday the AQI hit 669 – the equivalent of smoking 30 cigarettes per day.

Sydney resident Donna Hogan, who has asthma, told The Telegraph she has only left her home because she must attend her university.

“I have upped my asthma medication to a super high level. Students at UNSW are still doing their exams in this nightmare,” she said.

“The smoke has interrupted my sleep, inhibited my ability to study… I use a surgical mask but it’s ineffective. I can’t walk to university, I have to get an Uber to go less than one kilometre.”

In April a group of 23 former chiefs and deputy chiefs of fire services across Australia warned the Government that the country was not prepared for the impact of climate change on the fire season, and needed stronger climate change policies and more resources for firefighting.

Sydney residents urged to stay indoors as Australian bushfire smoke blankets city

Strong winds stoked more than 100 fires across Australia’s east coast on Tuesday, blanketing Sydney in hazardous smoke and prompting health warnings for the country’s most populous city.

Australia is prone to bushfires in its dry, hot summers, but fierce blazes have been sparked early, in the southern spring, by a long drought and soaring temperatures.

Wildfires have so far this month claimed at least four lives, burnt about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroyed more than 300 homes.

Powerful winds fanned around 130 fires that have been burning across New South Wales and Queensland states for several days, and pushed smoke south to form a thick haze over Sydney, home to around 5 million people.

Officials said the air quality above parts of the harbour city was measured at 10 times hazardous levels on Tuesday and advised people to stay indoors as much as possible as the smoke lingers over coming days.

Smoke shrouds the Sydney Opera House Credit: Cassie Trotter/Getty

"We know that heatwaves cause severe illness, hospital admission and even deaths, and that people are more sensitive to heatwaves early in the season," Richard Broom, director of environmental health at NSW Health said In an emailed statement.

"The combination of heat and poor air quality adds to the risk."

In NSW, firefighters were scrambling to strengthen fire containment lines ahead of forecast higher temperatures for much of the rest of the week.

"More than 1,300 firefighters are working on these fires, undertaking backburning operations and strengthening containment lines ahead of forecast hot, dry and windy weather, with seven areas under a total fire ban," the NSW Rural Fire Service said in a statement.

An image taken from an aeroplane shows smoke haze blanketing Sydney Credit: REUTERS

The current bushfire crisis has mostly been contained to the east coast of NSW and Queensland states, but officials in South Australia warned on Tuesday that forecast near-record temperatures raises the risks in that state.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said temperatures in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, will hit 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, which coupled with strong winds will create "catastrophic" fire danger conditions. 

Bush fires hit Sydney as Australia braced for ‘catastrophic’ conditions

Bushfires reached within miles of Sydney’s city centre Tuesday prompting firefighting planes to spray red retardant over trees and houses in a northern suburb.

Authorities said they had one fire in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, under control though another one was out of control.

Aerial footage showed flames burning through a eucalypt forest in Turramurra on Sydney’s north shore, around 15 kilometres (nine miles) from the centre of the city.

Firefighters were deployed in the area to protect houses.

"The fire is spreading quickly," New South Wales Rural Fire Service warned residents. "Properties are under threat."

Sydney Opera House as winds blow smoke from bushfires Credit: STEVEN SAPHORE/AAP

There were no immediate reports of properties in the area being burnt.

‘Catastrophic bush fires’

A ‘catastrophic’ fire warning was issued for the Sydney, Illawarra and Hunter areas, which includes the Blue Mountains and the Central Coast.

There are 85 fires in New South Wales, 46 are thought to be out of control and 14 are at an "emergency level".

There are now more than 3,000 firefighters are on the ground, supported by 60 aircraft.

The New South Wales government has declared a state of emergency for seven days, and more than 575 schools and TAFE campuses have been closed. More than 150 homes have been destroyed, three people have died, and two firefighters were seriously injured by a falling tree.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, told a media conference: “We are starting to see an increase in the wind speeds, especially in the ranges.

!We are expecting those to continue to strengthen from 10 to 11 o’clock late morning… Now is the time to exercise those decisions to leave, leave early and go to safer locations, safer towns or safer places in your community such as shopping centres.”

Several regions of eastern New South Wales had a ‘catastrophic’ fire danger warning applied on Tuesday, including Greater Sydney.

Weather warnings

The Bureau of Meteorology forecast temperatures in the high 30s, with winds up to 65km per hour in some parts, across the danger areas.

The scale and severity of the fires has led to a war of words between local authorities and fire-fighting experts calling for action on climate change, and a Federal Government that has presided over a rise in carbon emissions.

Firefighters monitor bush fire spot at the Woodford residential area in Blue Mountains Credit: SAEED KHAN/AFP

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack claimed it was “disgusting” the people were linking the fires to climate change.

He said victims of the fire “don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time”.

Carol Sparks, the Mayor of Glen Innes, where two people died on the weekend as a result of the fires, said the Deputy Prime Minister “needs to read the science”.

“That is what I am going by, is the science… It is not a political thing — it is a scientific fact that we are going through climate change,” she told local media.

Mid Coast Mayor Claire Pontin told local media that the Federal Government needs “to get out and have a real look at what’s happening to this country”.

“We’ve not had situations like that. Fifty years ago, this would never happen… We don’t have capital city greenies around here, we have farmers coming to us and saying, ‘look what’s happened to my farm, I can’t afford to feed the cows anymore because I’ve been buying feed for the last 18 months’,” she said.

Inadequate resources

In April, 23 former chiefs and deputy chiefs of fire and emergency services across Australia said the country was unprepared for worsening natural disasters from climate change and government inaction was putting lives at risk.

A state of emergency was declared on November 11 and residents in the Sydney area were warned of "catastrophic" fire danger Credit: PETER PARKS/AFP

In a statement issued before a Federal Election date was announced, the group called on both major parties to recognise the need for “national firefighting assets”, including large aircraft, to deal with the scale of the threat.

The statement called on the next prime minister to meet former emergency service leaders “who will outline, unconstrained by their former employers, how climate change risks are rapidly escalating”.

The group also wanted the next government to commit to an inquiry into whether Australia’s emergency services are adequately resourced to deal with increased risks from natural disasters caused by climate change.

In June, the New South Wales firefighters union said the state government had cut the capital budget of Fire and Rescue NSW by 35.4 per cent, and that in addition there were $12.9 million dollars of cuts in expenses. 

Climate change

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that Australia’s bushfire season is growing longer and more intense because of climate change. 

The Bureau of Meteorology stated in a 2018 report that climate change has seen an increase in extreme heat events and in the severity of natural disasters, including drought.

In the past four months, northern New South Wales and southern Queensland has experienced a historically severe drought.

"There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather and in the length of the fire season across large parts of Australia since the 1950s … Climate change, including increasing temperatures, is contributing to these changes," the report said.