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Australians protest as bushfire haze sparks health fears

Sydney has endured weeks bathed in toxic smoke as hundreds of blazes have raged across the countryside

This photo taken on December 10, 2019 shows a firefighter conducting back-burning measures to secure residential areas from encroaching bushfires in the Central Coast, some 90-110 kilometres north of Sydney. AFP
This photo taken on December 10, 2019 shows a firefighter conducting back-burning measures to secure residential areas from encroaching bushfires in the Central Coast, some 90-110 kilometres north of Sydney. AFP

Thousands of protesters rallied in Sydney on Wednesday demanding urgent climate action from Australia's government, as bushfire smoke choking the city caused health problems to spike.

Sydney has endured weeks bathed in toxic smoke as hundreds of blazes have raged across the countryside, with hospitals recording a 25 per cent increase in the number of people visiting emergency departments last week.

On Tuesday smoke alarms rang out across Australia's biggest city, with thick haze triggering smoke alarms and forcing buildings to be evacuated, schoolchildren to be kept indoors, and ferries to be cancelled.

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.

Around 5,000 people gathered as the demonstration began, voicing anger at the government's silence in the face of the crisis.

"The country is on fire" said Samuel Wilkie, 26, who was attending his first climate protest. He described politicians' response as "pathetic".

"Our government is not doing anything about it," said landscape gardener, Zara Zoe, 29. "No one is listening, no one is doing anything."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison — a staunch backer of Australia's vast coal industry — has said little about the smoke since the crisis began, preferring to focus on fire-hit rural communities.

Organiser Chloe Rafferty said that had created anger at the conservative government's inaction.

"I think the wider public can see that we are not expecting the climate crisis in the future but we are facing the climate crisis now," she told AFP.

"People are experiencing it in their day-to-day lives."

As well as a rise in people visiting hospitals with smoke-related health symptoms, the number of emergency calls for ambulances spiked 30 per cent last week.

"For most people, smoke causes mild symptoms like sore eyes, nose and throat," top health department official Richard Broome said.

"However, people with conditions like asthma, emphysema and angina are at greater risk because the smoke can trigger their symptoms."

Updated: December 12, 2019 12:13 PM

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