New South Wales experienced record high temperatures, well below average rainfall, heatwaves, strong westerly winds and low humidity during spring–summer 2019–20. The extreme weather conditions, combined with prolonged intense drought, brought dangerous bushfire conditions across the eastern half of the State and record levels of dust-storm activity Statewide.
Bushfires began in the north-east as early as winter 2019 and spread south through eastern NSW. The extent of the burnt area in the NSW bushfire season 2019–20 was 5.5 million hectares, nearing the total area burnt in the combined bushfire seasons from 1993–94 to 2018–19. Extensive bushfire smoke and dust storms led to extreme levels of air pollution during spring–summer 2019–20.
The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment implemented an emergency response in collaboration with public health and fire and land management authorities. Our integrated air quality monitoring, forecasting and reporting systems provided hourly updated information on air pollution levels and health risks to support decision making on emergency management responses by relevant authorities. The interagency collaboration enhanced the delivery of consistent messaging on the status of air quality and measures to minimise exposure for individuals and service providers in smoke-affected communities.
Our key actions
Our key actions are summarised below:
- The Department operated the most extensive air quality monitoring network in Australia, with more than 90 stations across urban, regional and rural NSW, providing the community with accurate, up-to-date air quality information on an hourly basis.
- We deployed 9 bushfire emergency air quality monitoring stations, providing near real-time air quality information to communities near fire fields in regions extending from the NSW Northern Rivers to the South Coast and Snowy Mountains.
- We enhanced our air quality modelling and forecasting capability with improved emissions modelling systems to better predict the dynamic behaviour of smoke and dust plumes and improve early warnings.
- We issued air quality forecasts and health advice in consultation with emergency response agencies to facilitate public health management. We conducted multiple forecast reviews each day and issued health alert messages when air quality was forecast to exceed air quality standards.
- We upgraded our website in response to community requests for improved reporting of near-real time changes in air quality, publishing hourly-averaged particle measurements and enhanced health guidance and advice.