The bush fires in eastern Australia are increasingly polluting the air over the megacity of Sydney with ash and smoke. Residents have difficulty breathing - and a political debate has broken out.
The sky has changed color over Sydney's harbor district: otherwise it was bright blue, but now it glows in a threatening blood orange. In the midst of dark gray billows of smoke, a bridal couple poses on a footbridge in front of the famous skyline of the Australian metropolis - a wedding photo like from an end-of-time film.
There is a smell of smoke everywhere, even in the houses, even though the residents keep the windows and doors tightly closed. When they venture out on the street, many people wear breathing masks to protect themselves from the pollutant particles in the air.
In the eastern state of New South Wales, the capital of which is Sydney, 117 bushfires are currently raging. At least 60 of them are out of control, more than 1700 firefighters are on duty against the flames. The bush fire closest to Sydney is the Gospers Mountain fire around 100 kilometers northwest of the metropolis.
It has already destroyed parts of the Wollemi National Park. In total, more than 7,000 fires have raged in New South Wales over an area of at least two million hectares. Six people have already fallen victim to the flames and more than 670 houses have been destroyed.
Pollutants remain because of the inversion position
The plumes of smoke move from the interior towards the coast and are now heavily over Sydney. Because of an inversion weather situation, in which pollutants collect on the ground, they should remain there at least until Saturday, the fire authority RFS announced on Thursday.
It is "one of the worst air pollution ever," warned the New South Wales Environment Agency. The authority classified the air quality on Thursday in the east and southwest of the city as "harmful" and in the northwest as "very bad".
For the residents of the metropolis, this is an enormous nuisance. "It's hard to breathe," says Lucky Shrestha, who has been making deliveries in Sydney for many years. "It feels like I'm suffocating, like I'm not getting enough oxygen," says the 37-year-old. At five o'clock in the morning he sits behind the wheel and after just a few hours his eyes are extremely irritated. He's also worried about his children. Schools in the city have canceled sporting events and outdoor activities. Even in the evenings, Shrestha prefers to stay in the house with his children.
The toxic smoke particles get into the blood through the lungs when they are inhaled. This is particularly dangerous for people with heart or lung diseases, said the health authorities of New South Wales. In the past few weeks, the number of emergency patients with asthma and breathing problems has increased, said a spokesman.
A consequence of climate change?
Meanwhile, politicians across the country are arguing about how the devastating bush fires are related to climate change. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a strong proponent of the coal industry, said the debates were "unhelpful". The last thing the population needs in the crisis is the shouting of politicians against each other.
Australian scientists, on the other hand, assume a significantly increased fire risk due to climate change. A report by the weather service said last year that climate change was contributing to the extension of the fire season. In fact, the first fires of this year broke out in October - it was only expected in December. Both New South Wales and the neighboring state of Queensland have been suffering from severe drought for a long time.
The all-clear is currently not in sight for the east of Australia, because the weather conditions are very bad: A hot, dry wind blows from the interior of the country over the drought-marked landscape, which is downright "absurdly" flammable, as the head of the fire department RFS, Shane Fitzsimmons said. On Friday, the wind and heat are even expected to increase.
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