Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Smoke and the city



I wasn't prepared for what happened in Canberra this past month. The effects of bush fires and by extension climate change was always an intangible notion, something I understood but did not directly experience.

Chris Johnston cartoon shows Scott Morrison shrouded in smoke pollution in front of a sign that reads Canberra: Where the bloody hell are you?As I walked through Canberra's civic on New Year's Eve, it felt like someone had dropped a smoke bomb on the capital. You could taste the smoke on your tongue — it was ashy metal, burnt charcoal. My eyes were assaulted by a stubborn smog that lulled you into a dreamlike vapour, and as the smoke pricked at your eyes you were left asking in Macbethian fashion if 'something wicked this way comes'.

But it was just more choke, more itchiness and Canberrans racing off like someone just bug sprayed a whole city. New Year's Day was even worse. My housemate and I barricaded ourselves in our 1970s 'embassy' cum 2020s public servant share house. I acquainted myself with terms such as AQI (air quality index) and PM2.5 (particulate matter) to make sense of the ACT government's reports on air quality.

Canberra has a reputation for being banal, bureaucratic and the 'bush capital'. But come 2020 it was in the news and twitter feeds for being the city with the worst air quality in the world, beating Delhi for the top spot. What followed were four days of intense heat, sunless mornings, Blade Runner sky hues and warnings to stay indoors as much as possible. But movement is life.

Air is life. And clean breathable air was being withheld by an unremitting climate rage that ravaged parts of NSW, Victoria and the ACT. Our postmodern complacency had allowed me to take clean air for granted. Staying indoors may have shielded you somewhat from the apocalyptic smoke raid, but even being inside most of us were probably still breathing hazardous air. If an ant can find its way into your room then air with particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometres surely can.

Getting an air purifier in Canberra was practically impossible. Even P2 masks weren't readily available. Every retailer was out of stock. What's more, Australia Post stopped delivering, so buying such goods online was sure to take at least a week. Many undoubtedly would have opted to leave Canberra, becoming transient climate refugees.

Canberra bashing aside, the bush capital is one of the most progressive in Australia, perhaps even in the world. The ACT was the first in Australia to pass a Human Rights Act, to legalise personal cannabis use and to install the first same sex pedestrian lights. The quality of life, access to services and public transport and the availability of jobs have made the ACT an attractive place to live, work or study.


"The smoke envelopment of Canberra made clear that the effects of bushfires — and, by extension, climate change — are pervasive, and a city's progressive credentials are ineffective without meaningful universal action."


I moved to Canberra from Sydney in early 2018 for a new job and to get away from the Sydney rat race and, ironically, the pollution. In other words, I came to Canberra for a job, not the smog. I've had zero regrets, although I do miss the proximity of beaches, and navigating Canberra's whiteness has its own challenges.

Yet the bushfires have made apparent Canberra's vulnerability within the bigger climate picture — its habitability has been thrown up in the air (no pun intended) as one of our most precious resources, clean air, was undercut.

What if this becomes the new norm? Canberra summers are hot and dry and difficult enough without having to worry about hazardous air, indoor curfews and business lockdowns. Of course, there are Australians who had and continue to have it much worse than Canberrans, namely those whose complete livelihoods have been upended by the flames.

Yet what the smoke envelopment of Canberra made clear is that the effects of bushfires — and, by extension, climate change — are pervasive, and a city's progressive credentials are ineffective without meaningful universal action.

When was the last time you thought about clean air? I have to admit it's not something that has occupied my mind until recently and with it the social and commercial breakdown that the lack of clean air can enact on cities and lives. Perhaps it's time we thought about it.



Daniel SleimanDaniel Sleiman is a freelance writer and journalist based in Canberra.

Topic tags: Daniel Sleiman, Canberra, pollution, bushfires



submit a comment

Existing comments

When I visited Beijing a few years ago it was the unremitting toxic air that is my most potent remembrance. When I say 'unremitting' there were some patches of blue sky on the weekend as many cars were off the road. Canberra, like Sydney, has suffered this summer. And you are right to point out, Daniel, that many people have been worse affected. I would guess quite a number of Canberrans remember the devastating bushfire in 2003 which impacted the city. I can remember the black ash on North Mollymook beach from that fire.

Pam | 13 January 2020  

Ahh Daniel, I think youre the first author nationwide in the last few weeks not to use "unprecedented" in an article...kudos to your youthful restraint. Canberra burned in 2003, buildings and lives lost; I anticipate the resulting smoke then was secondary in mind to the catastrophic outcome. If the "something wicked" can be limited to toxic fumes this event will remain a curious footnote in the Capital's nuances; the services will be directed to protect capitals and certain community recreational assets, if anything the Canberra smoke will be a fitting ethereal analogy to 2020's manifestation of ignored outcomes identified in endless reports and risk assessments. The "u" word (unprecedented) was wholly predictable, forecast and scientifically investigated. The cliche "where there's smoke there's fire" fails for Canberra; thankfully your lament for clean air is only temporary if not the final. Australia will gasp for clean air in the aftermath while our politicians cloud realities - it all happens in Canberra and that "something wicked" resides there in your midst. "Breathe deep, the gathering gloom"

Ray | 13 January 2020  

Daniel, I live and I have worked in Canberra from 1983 until my retirement four years ago. I love it here. I also record the weather here. The smoke and the sight of dying trees and gardens brings to our residents the reality of human induced climate change. We even couldn't drive to the Coast for our summer holidays, thanks to the mega fires down there, closing the Kings Highway. We morn the enormous losses of those who welcomed us each year. But the politicians who deny it and have frustrated any attempts to combat it, are not here to see and smell it! I was here for the 2003 fires and vividly remember the utter darkness at noon , the rain of ashes and burnt leaves. We have recorded more days over 40 degrees in recent months than anytime since the Met. Station opened in 1939. indeed prior to 2019, there have been no days exceeding 40 degrees in the record- and this was not an El Nino year, yet we are in a record drought When will the Morrison Government get the message and act? Gavin O'Brien, FRMetS.

Gavin O'Brien | 15 January 2020  

What does FRMetS mean, Gavin? Haven't seen this post-nominal before.

curious | 18 January 2020  

Similar Articles

Kangaroo Island paradise lost

  • Catherine Marshall
  • 22 January 2020

Turning off the main road, we burrowed now into a verdant tunnel; at the end of it stood one of Australia's flagship properties, Southern Ocean Lodge. Entering its vaulted, glass encased great room, I turned my head from the rolling waves on one side to the rolling bush on the other. Each was an ocean unto itself.


Air quality agony is the new reality

  • Megan Graham
  • 17 January 2020

It was my first time at this library. I'd come to escape the heavy smoke and my old draughty apartment. Approaching the service desk upon arrival, I admit to looking deliberately pathetic in the hopes of avoiding a laborious sign-up process to access the wi-fi. I only wanted somewhere I could work safely, breathing in non-toxic air.