SYDNEY: Australia’s biggest city is facing a “public health emergency” over the bushfire smoke that has choked Sydney for weeks, leading doctors warned yesterday after hospitals reported a dramatic spike in casualty department visits.

Hundreds of climate change fuelled bush fires have been raging across Australia for months, with efforts to contain a “megablaze” burning north of Sydney destroying an estimated 20 homes overnight and fires near Perth threatening towns.

More than 20 medical groups including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians — which represents 25,000 doctors and trainees — released a joint statement yesterday calling on Australia’s government to address the toxic air pollution.

“The air pollution in NSW is a public health emergency,” the Climate and Health Alliance said.

“Smoke from bush fires has produced air pollution of up to 11 times the base ‘hazardous’ level in parts of Sydney and New South Wales.

“Bushfire smoke is particularly hazardous because of the high levels of tiny particles (PM2.5).”

A firefighter conducting back-burning measures to secure residential areas from encroaching bush fires in the Central Coast, some 90-110 kilometres north of Sydney, in this file photo taken on December 10. Photo: AFP

The New South Wales state health department said it recorded a 48 percent increase in the number of people visiting hospital emergency rooms with respiratory problems in the week ending December 11 compared to the five-year average.

Visits spiked 80 percent on December 10, when air quality plummeted across Sydney prompting up to 20,000 residents to march in protest the following day.

The Climate and Health Alliance called on the government to take urgent action to curb emissions, saying climate change is worsening bush fires that are having “devastating impacts on human health”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week made a rare admission that climate change is one of the “factors” behind the fires, but defended Australia’s record on emissions reduction and failed to announce further measures to address the issue.

Six people have been killed, more than 700 houses destroyed and at least 7.4 million acres of land burned this bushfire season.

More than 100 fires are currently burning in New South Wales, where efforts to contain a 400,000-hectare blaze near Sydney using back burning are believed to have sparked another fire that destroyed an estimated 20 homes.

A New South Wales Rural Fire and Rescue Service spokeswoman told AFP the fire was “likely the result of embers from the back burning operation” but that work had been “absolutely critical” and many more homes could have been lost without it.

The devastating fires have focused attention on climate change, with scientists saying the blazes have come earlier and with more intensity than usual due to global warming and a prolonged drought that has also caused towns to run out of drinking water and forced farmers off their land. – AFP