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Dublin: 5 °C Monday 27 January, 2020
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Sydney's smoke: Looking out my daughter’s window the city was blanketed in orange dust, writes Dr Suzanne O'Brien

Of course, here among the bricks and the concrete of inner city terraces we know we are lucky, we are safe.

Dr. Suzanne O'Brien

BEGINNING IN SEPTEMBER, this Australian bushfire season was proving to be particularly fierce and in New South Wales we observed the path of damage and destruction as the wildfires spread south from central and southern Queensland.

In early November the fine dust and particles from raging flames hundreds of kilometres away first began sweeping into my adopted home city of Sydney.

Looking out my daughter’s window on the first morning the city was blanketed in orange dust. It was an eerie sight.

The light could hardly penetrate the thick smog and the sky was beige, the sun was a scarlet disc.

Around the harbour, the iconic landmarks were wreathed in smoke and the day’s heat became trapped under layers of haze.

australia-wildfires The 2019 bushfire season in Australia has been deemed catastrophic, with unprecedented high temperatures and drought causing untold damage. Eight people have died and over three million hectares (7.4m acres) have been destroyed. Source: AP/PA Images

 Climate change is here

As I tried to make out the familiar skyline that first morning, now barely visible, I had a clear but terrifying thought: Climate change is here, it’s no longer an abstract. It has arrived.

I started to check the local Air Quality Index every morning before I left for my commute and the school drop off.

The AQI is updated hourly and gives me a colour-coded grading for visibility and importantly, the presence of airborne particles that can be hazardous to health.

Particles less than 10 micrometres can penetrate into the deepest part of the lungs and can trigger airway constriction in those susceptible.

With the AQI – Yellow is Fair air quality, Orange is Poor, Burgundy is Very Poor and Red is Hazardous.

When the air quality is poor or lower, I drive my two young children the short distance to school to try and limit their exposure to the smoke.

Their day passes without a break for outside play to run and jump around, it’s just safer to stay indoors.

Who is suffering most in Sydney?

At the hospital where I work the majority of my patients are elderly and frail.

Many suffer from chronic respiratory diseases and are among the most vulnerable to the smoke triggering their symptoms.

Some have presented to the Emergency Department with increased wheeze and breathlessness necessitating their admission.

Others are already inpatients for different issues but the dust has exacerbated their asthma and their emphysema, and prolonged their overall hospital stay.

Over the last few weeks the plumes of smoke from the Blue Mountains, the Southern Highlands and from all of the fires ringing the city have advanced and swept away.

We have days where the sky looks blue again and the burning smell is gone.

Periodically, the cloud of dust returns, clothes dried outside are spotted with ash and the sunsets are eerie but magnificent.

scott-morrison-bushfires-nsw Prime Minister Scott Morrison is under pressure over his handling of the bushfire crisis. Source: AAP/PA Images

Grateful we are not in the direct path of fire

Of course, here among the bricks and the concrete of inner city terraces we know we are lucky, we are safe.

The worst mega fire won’t destroy our homes, ruin farms and businesses and leave us destitute.

We are heartbroken witnessing the losses suffered by residents further inland.

Political leadership is lacking

Disappointingly, several political leaders’ first response at the beginning of this catastrophe was to deny, downplay and deflect.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael Mccormack dismissed concerns about links between climate change and the fires as the “ravings” of “woke capital city greenies “.

In November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison argued there was no evidence to connect Australia’s carbon emissions and the bushfires ravaging the country.

Yet hundreds gathered to protest outside the Prime Minister’s official Sydney residence last week at his decision to leave for a family holiday in Hawaii while Australia
is burning.

With pressure mounting, he has cut his holiday short and returned. We are all awaiting an appropriate response this time.

Dr Suzanne O’Brien is an Irishwoman living in Sydney

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Dr. Suzanne O'Brien

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