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Bushfires and dust storms

Air quality in Queensland is generally good. Monitored pollutants have exceeded national standards or guidelines very few times.

There have been periods of elevated particle levels in all areas of Queensland where monitoring takes place, largely due to dust storms and bushfires.

In South East Queensland and Gladstone, particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) levels occasionally exceed the National Environment Protection Measure (Air NEPM) advisory standards, primarily as a result of smoke from vegetation burning.

There have also been occasional breaches of the Air NEPM goal (<5 days per year) for particles less than 10 micrometres in diameter (PM10). Particularly during 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2009, the PM10 levels were above the standard of 50 microgram per cubic metre (μg/m3) due to major dust storms and/or bushfires.

Dust storms

Dust storms affect air quality. Dust plumes typically originate from inland areas where:

  • land management practices and extended drought reduce ground cover
  • high winds transport the eroded soil over long distances.

In September 2009, a large dust storm (the Red Dawn dust storm) moved across eastern Australia, extending from the New South Wales–Victorian border to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Fine, dry sediment from inland evaporation pans and floodplains in central Australia, deposited by the floods in February 2009 and whipped up by strong winds, associated with the passage of two weather fronts, became that extensive dust storm.

The following images show the impact of this dust storm on Brisbane’s air quality.

View from the Mount Coot-tha lookout, Brisbane during a dust storm on 23 September 2009
View from the Mount Coot-tha lookout, Brisbane, on 24 September 2009, the day after a dust storm

Bushfires

Fires are common in Australia and include:

  • bush and grass fires
  • hazard-reduction burns
  • cane burning
  • grazing pasture improvement burns.

Both controlled and uncontrolled burning generates large amounts of smoke, ash and dust. Uncontrolled burning during extreme weather conditions (dry and windy) are less common, but often burn more intensely over a wider area. Depending on fuel loads, topography and climatic conditions, uncontrolled burning can have a significant impact on air quality.

Recent changes to management procedures has reduced the impact of smoke from vegetation fires—for example avoiding hazard-reduction burning when the smoke is likely to affect populated areas because of poor dispersion conditions.

A typical bushfire in Cloncurry on 27 August 2012.

Impacts

The immediate impacts of dust storms and bushfires include:

  • decrease in air quality
  • health problems due to inhalation of fine particles—this can worsen respiratory and cardiovascular disease particularly in children, the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions
  • reduction in visibility
  • disruption to transport
  • residues on surfaces.

The loss of soil from the source can also impact on water quality as soil is carried away into waterways and wetlands.

Bushfires also release large amounts of ozone precursors and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and have the potential for widespread damage to property, environment and human life.

View the live air data page to check the current levels of particles in the atmosphere at monitoring stations in the Queensland network.

Reducing impacts

When you are aware that bushfires or dust storms are imminent, you can take some steps to reduce the impacts.

Where possible, stay indoors and minimise the transfer of outdoor air to the inside by closing windows and doors.

You should not exercise outdoors in a smoky atmosphere, as this will increase the amount of fine particles inhaled into the lungs.

This is particularly important for people with medical conditions who should prepare by taking their medication in consultation with their doctor.

Queensland Health has a telephone service for any health concerns that are not an emergency but could be serious: 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84).