SYDNEY: Toxic haze blanketed Sydney yesterday triggering a chorus of smoke alarms to ring across the city and forcing school children inside, as “severe” weather conditions fuelled deadly bush blazes along Australia’s east coast.

Fire engines raced office-to-office in the city centre with sirens blaring, as inland bush fires poured smoke laden with toxic particles into commercial buildings.

Emergency services responded to an “unprecedented” 500 automatic call-outs inside a few hours according to New South Wales Fire and Rescue’s Roger Mentha.

A regional fire headquarters mile from the nearest blazes was itself evacuated while throngs of mask wearing commuters choked their way through thick acrid air and the organisers of a harbour yacht race declared it was unsafe to proceed.

“The smoke from all the fires is just so severe here on the harbour that you just can’t see anything, so it’s just too dangerous,” said spokeswoman Di Pearson of an event that normally foreshadows the famed Sydney-Hobart yacht race. “The vision is just so poor.”

Some of the city’s commuter ferries were also cancelled “due to thick smoke” and school kids were kept inside at break time and sent home early as pollution levels soared far above “hazardous” levels.

A bird flies as thick toxic smoke from bush fires cutting through inland forests is seen in Gosford north of Sydney yesterday.
Photo: AFP

For weeks the east of the country has been smothered in smoke as drought and climate-fuelled bush fires have burned. But the scale of the problem yesterday shocked even hardened residents.

Bruce Baker -— an 82-year-old who lives in Gosford, north of Sydney — said he was skipping his daily morning walk because of the smoke.

“This is the worst it’s been, for sure,” he told AFP. “It dries your throat. Even if you’re not asthmatic, you feel it.”

Authorities recommended that the vulnerable cease outdoor activity altogether and that everyone stay inside as much as possible, although one couple braved the toxic air to get married on the waterfront in front of Sydney Harbour Bridge shrouded in smog.

A cricket match between New South Wales and Queensland also went ahead, despite a barely visible ball.

Yesterday had been expected to bring strong winds and high temperatures that made for “severe conditions where embers can be blown ahead of the fire into suburbs and threaten properties”.

But New South Wales Rural Fire Service said “deteriorating fire conditions have been delayed by a thick blanket of smoke” over the east of the state.

As the day developed there were nearly 100 bushfire incidents in the state of New South Wales alone and dozens more in Queensland. – AFP