A smoky haze hung over Sydney, Australia, on Tuesday, December 10, blanketing the city and its landmarks in grey and sending the air quality rocketing to 11 times the hazardous level. Residents posted photos of the dangerous smoke on social media, calling on the government to act.
Hundreds of fires are burning across Australia in a particularly virulent fire season in the country. Bushfires are common in summer, but the climate crisis is increasing the frequency and severity of fires. On Tuesday, there were almost 100 bushfires burning in the state of New South Wales, including a megafire – one that the authorities have said is “too big to put out” – only an hour’s drive from Sydney.
Air quality is measured by the presence of ultra-fine PM2.5 particles, and anything above 200 in a 24-hour average index is considered hazardous. Some Sydney suburbs had a level of as high as 2,200 on Tuesday.
The high level of smoke triggered smoke alarms across the city, causing building evacuations. Smoke shrouded the city’s famous landmarks, such as the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and Bondi Beach. Beaches turned black from ash carried from bushfires many kilometres away. Cricket players at a match at the Sydney Cricket Ground said that it was “hard to breathe”.
“It felt like the world was on fire”
I took the photo at lunchtime after I went to the school canteen. I was walking past the play equipment and I found it a powerful image: that the play area was completely empty and the sky was full of smoke, and the children were stuck inside, not playing.
Victoria Davidson posted this photo of an empty playground in the smoke to Twitter.
We woke up this morning and the sun was not normal sun colour – it was red. It looks like something out of Bladerunner. I grew up in Sydney and we’ve always had bushfires but never anywhere near this level. You wake up and you can smell it. It’s a very Australian smell, that smell of burning bush. It reminds me of Australian summer. But to have that smell constantly, and the intensity of it, is very unusual. To see the city today completely blanketed in smoke… It felt like the world was on fire.
Everything is still carrying on as normal. Normally I would walk the kids to school but I’ve been driving them instead. My husband still went to work. People are trying to stay in air conditioning as much as possible, we’re keeping children out of sport, some services are closed. Some people are even wearing gas masks. It seems extreme. I’m 47 and I’ve never seen this in Sydney before.
“I’m scared for my children’s future”
I feel that there’s a sense of dismay and desperation around it. And also a feeling of ‘When is this going to end?’ We’ve already had a really long drought; we need rain to get rid of it, and there’s no rain forecast. There’s just no respite. It’s all day. And we’re not even close to a bushfire front! For people living close to a bushfire front it must be traumatic.
It’s getting international attention because you’re seeing images of the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House covered in smoke. We’re living in remarkable circumstances.
We have a central government that doesn’t believe in climate change. People are going crazy that the government hasn’t said anything about it. Around 700 homes have been lost [in the bushfires], there have been deaths, and there’s been very little government response.
It feels very desperate. I’m scared for my children’s future.