Emergency call centres have been overwhelmed with calls from concerned Canberrans as smoke from a forest fire blanketed the city late on Thursday.
The North Black Range fire, burning in Tallaganda State Forest, was upgraded to a Watch and Act level about 4pm on Thursday.
It was later downgraded to advice, where it remains.
The fire is about 40 kilometres from Canberra, but a change in wind direction on Thursday night blew strong-smelling smoke across the city.
More than 300 calls to triple-0 “consumed” the communications centre, triggering fire services to areas where no fires were burning, the ACT Emergency Services Agency Commissioner said.
On Friday morning, Canberra residents were being urged to refer to the NSW Rural Fire Service website and use the Fires Near Me app for advice about fires in the area, to alleviate the strain on the service.
ACT residents may see lots of smoke to their east from the North Black Range fire in NSW. This smoke will likely affect the ACT tonight. An Emergency Warning has been issued by the RFS: https://t.co/FfgDxEieVX A Fire Weather Warning is current for the ACT: https://t.co/KITz3PNMnW pic.twitter.com/J6URJXrazl
— Bureau of Meteorology Australian Capital Territory (@BOM_ACT) November 29, 2019
Smoke causes frenzy of calls from Canberra residents
A total fire ban was declared in the ACT and surrounding NSW for Friday, with the fire danger level at “severe” and a top of 34 degrees expected.
Residents living outside Bungendore and Braidwood were being told to prepare as two fires burned towards each other in the Tallaganda State Forest.
The blazes – the North Black Range fire, which covers 1600 hectares, and the 60-hectare Palerang fire – are burning through a huge area in the forest.
About 7:30pm on Thursday, smoke from the fire blew towards Canberra when the wind changed direction, leading to widespread anxiety.
Many Canberrans, recalling the catastrophic 2003 bushfires that claimed properties and lives, feared the worst.
“Just the smell of smoke brings back a lot of awful memories of 2003. Stay safe everyone,” Maarama Kamira said on Facebook.
“Regardless where it’s from it feels unsettling,” another Facebook commenter, Lauren Irvine, said.
But the advice from authorities was to remain calm, urging people to call authorities only if they saw fire, not just smoke.
“I think it’s a combination of concern form our community and also the fact that we’ve asked our community to remain vigilant throughout this fire season,” ESA Commissioner Georgeina Whelan said.
“We’re saying to our community they should not be alarmed – at this stage our territory is not under threat.”
‘Quite surreal’: Farmers prepare to evacuate
Rural Fire Service district officer Darren Marks said on Friday morning the fire was “fairly benign” and conditions had eased for the time being.
But some properties outside Bungendore and Braidwood had prepared to evacuate as the fire burned close to boundaries.
“Those two fires are quite close together and given the forecast there is a good chance the two of those will merge,” Mr Marks said.
“In these conditions the existing fires are going to be very hard to control and anybody who is in the area, particularly in Bombay, Little Bombay and Bendoura.
“I think it’s fair to say that the bushfire danger season has well and truly appeared.”
Farmer Ellie Merriman, who lives about 10 kilometres outside Bungendore, on the edge of the Tallaganda Forest, said she had watched the fire burn on the other side of her boundary for days.
They had moved livestock and were prepared to evacuate if the wind changed later on Friday, she told the ABC.
“For the first time ever, I don’t want the cool change to come through,” she said.
“We’re physically right next door to it, so where our property is it’s just a hop and a skip away.
“Weirdly, it looks quite beautiful.”
She urged anyone in a bushfire prone area to get ready early and know their emergency evacuation plan.
“We’re organised, we’ve got our fire plan, we’ve tested all our plans … we feel as prepared as we can be,” she said.
“It just takes you so much longer that you think, moving horses, getting stuff together.”
The family is sleeping away from the property and returning during the day to monitor the situation.
“It’s quite strange, very surreal, because we’ve been going through it for the past three days,” he said.
‘Don’t go for a run’: Smoke poses risk to chronically ill
Those with chronic conditions have been told to stay indoors and avoid any strenuous activities due to the smoke in the Canberra region.
ACT Chief Health Officer Kerryn Coleman said a reduction in air quality had been registered and posed a risk to people with heart and lung conditions.
“We don’t expect the majority of the community to have impacts, but those with chronic and existing heart and lung conditions may experience an exacerbation of their symptoms,” she said.
“Some pregnant women may also be susceptible.
“We recommend these people limit their outdoor activities … don’t go for a run, don’t do boot camp this morning.”
Anyone who experiences a change in their symptoms should contact their GP or triple-0 if they are concerned about their health, she said.
“But we hope and don’t expect to have a big jump in our numbers coming through.”