Smoke from Gell River bushfire causes ‘extreme’ air pollution
Smoke blanketed large parts of southern Tasmania on Friday, affecting air quality. (Supplied: Lizzie Donovan)
“Extreme” air pollution levels have been recorded in parts of the Derwent Valley as a result of bushfires burning near Gell River in Tasmania’s South West Wilderness, prompting a warning from experts about the health risks.
- Smoke from the massive Gell River fire blanketed parts of southern Tasmania
- Air pollution expert warns smoke particles could cause significant symptoms in some people
- Those most at risk are the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions
Communities including at Maydena were put on alert on Friday but a late cool change shifted winds west-north-westerly, and temperatures dropped more than 15 degrees Celsius to the mid 20s.
The fire was downgraded to advice level overnight and conditions on the Gell River fire ground are expected to improve today.
The Environment Protection Authority’s air quality measurements particle concentration soared to 750 parts per million (ppm) at New Norfolk about 1:00pm on Friday, while levels at Gretna reached around 550ppm.
Background levels are usually 5 ppm or less.
Associate Professor Fay Johnston from the Menzies Research Institute, a global expert in air pollution caused by bushfires, warned the smoke from fires could linger for days.
“They’re extreme (levels), they’ve fallen and it has been a brief episode of extreme pollution, but it would put people with lung and heart conditions at risk,” she said.
“Smoke from bushfires is very irritating to parts of lungs and for people in higher-risk groups it doesn’t take a lot of smoke to cause significant symptoms.
“I would expect episodes of poor air quality to affect Hobart, up the Derwent Valley, Huonville and the Huon Valley as well.”
While the smoke has mostly dissipated, it can continue to affect some in higher-risk groups. (ABC News: Craig Allen)
Associate Professor Johnston said the levels in Hobart were “mild to moderate but were fluctuating and have the potential to get more severe”.
“Smoke can travel long distances, it can be transported for hundreds of kilometres and it can cause severe air quality impacts a long way from the fires, so Hobart is at risk of episodes of very poor air quality,” she said.
“If it goes on, if it gets worse, if a big population like Hobart is seriously affected then I would expect to see hospital admissions and ambulance callouts increase.”
‘Be aware of the risks’
Tasmania’s Director of Public Health Mark Veitch said the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions, including asthma and heart disease, were most at risk.
Managing asthma in smoky conditions
- Avoid physical activity outdoors
- Stay indoors with windows and doors closed
- When indoors, avoid other pollution sources like cigarette smoke
- Consider visiting a friend’s place, or public area like a shopping centre
- If there’s a break in smoky conditions, open windows to air home
Source: Public Health Services
“The first thing people should do is avoid vigorous activity outside if it’s smoky, take all your preventive medicines, try and keep your house as smoke-free as possible, closing doors and windows and switch air conditioners to recycle,” Dr Veitch said.
“If people are experiencing a flare-up of their conditions then it’s important they seek medical care urgently.
“My advice is for everybody in southern Tasmania to be aware of risks of exposure to smoke and to try and reduce their exposure to smoke.”
It says symptoms of smoke exposure depend on age, medical conditions and length of exposure.
They can include itchy or burning eyes, sore throat, runny nose and a cough, and worsening symptoms may include wheezing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing.
Tasmania’s Environment Protection Authority has real-time air quality data to help monitor local air quality.
Authorities remain on alert
The fire at Gell River in Tasmania’s remote South West Wilderness World Heritage Area could burn for months. (Supplied: Geoscience Australia)
Although the weather has cooled, the fire service remains on alert.
Firefighters are continuing to battle the 15,000 hectare blaze in Tasmania’s south-west wilderness.
Paul Black from the Parks and Wildlife Service said aircraft and firefighters would continue to slow the spread of the blaze.
“We’ll be considering further retardant drops, some back burning operations and obviously a lot of the standard work that we do in those remote fires, which is a lot of water bombing and hot and cold trailing of the edge of the fire,” he said.
The fire service and Parks and Wildlife will update affected communities in Maydena and Hamilton today.
In other parts of the state, crews have been patrolling 17 fires but none have posed a major risk to communities.