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First a fire ban then weather warning, now dust prompts health alert

Canberra Times logoCanberra Times 4 days ago Monty Jacka, Finbar O'Mallon, Emily Barton and Kirsten Lawson
a close up of a map: The bureau has issued a severe weather warning for damaging winds. © Bureau of Meteorology The bureau has issued a severe weather warning for damaging winds.

Some Canberrans were expected to be still without electricity on Wednesday morning after damaging winds brought down powerlines and caused outages around the city, also bringing a dramatic dust storm on Tuesday.

Strong winds blanket Parliament House in dust on Tuesday afternoon. © Sitthixay Ditthavong Strong winds blanket Parliament House in dust on Tuesday afternoon.

By 8pm on Tuesday, about 230 customers remained without power, with some to be without electricity all night, Evoenergy said. At its peak, the storm saw nearly 6000 customers cut off, with traffic lights out and disruption to peak hour traffic on Tuesday afternoon.

a man riding a bike down a dirt road: Robert Agostino from O'Connor rides home as strong winds whip up waves along the lake front in Parkes. © Sitthixay Ditthavong Robert Agostino from O'Connor rides home as strong winds whip up waves along the lake front in Parkes.

The fire ban was delaying restoration of power because crews had to make extra safety patrols to deal with fire risk, a spokesperson said.

Evoenergy said all available crews would be working through the night to restore electricity.

Strong northwesterly winds were behind a severe weather warning and a total fire ban on Tuesday, also prompting a health warning.

"The ACT is experiencing dry conditions and strong winds, and the levels of dust particles are rising across the city reducing the air quality," the health directorate said in a statement.

"Anyone can experience symptoms from dust including the most common symptoms; burning eyes, throat and skin irritation. Some people with pre-existing breathing-related problems, such as asthma and chronic lung diseases, may experience breathing difficulties."

The dust storm over Canberra from a Virgin Australia flight, which had to abort its first landing attempt on Tuesday afternoon because of wind. © Sarah Curby The dust storm over Canberra from a Virgin Australia flight, which had to abort its first landing attempt on Tuesday afternoon because of wind.

The dust that blanketed the city for much of the afternoon persisted into the evening despite winds dying down.

A spokesman for the Bureau of Meteorology said the dust, from dry areas in the Riverina and South Australia, was tracking north on Tuesday evening and dissipating, with no more dust expected in this weather event. On Wednesday morning, the damaging northwesterly winds would become lighter and more variable, with a high of 24 degrees, before temperatures returned to the 30s from Friday.

A plane landing at Canberra Airport on a flight from Brisbane on Tuesday afternoon had to abort its first landing attempt because of the wind.

Virgin Australia flight VA1218 circled the airport for 20 minutes before landing successfully on the second attempt, Sarah Curby, who was on board at the time, told The Canberra Times.

"We went to land, almost hit the ground and had to fly back up as it was unsafe to land. We did a circle in the air, and then came back down at a different angle," she said.

"The captain said there was a wind swirl when we tried to land the first time. He was very calm and said we were going to land again from a different direction."

By 7.20pm on Tuesday, the State Emergency Service had received 127 calls for help with 35 still to be completed.

Downed power lines closed streets in Acton, Melba and Pearce, with emergency services on scene.

"There is a broad response at the moment, coordinated through an incident management team, which includes the SES, Rural Fire Service, Fire and Rescue, Transport Canberra and City Services," an ACT Emergency Services Agency spokeswoman said.

At 8pm, Evoenergy was still dealing with outages in Ainslie, Chisholm, Fraser, Giralang, Gowrie, Griffith, Higgins, Kambah, Kingston, Melba, Narrabundah, O'Connor, Oxley, Red Hill, Wanniassa and Yarralumla.

"We are very sorry for the extended interruption to the small number of customers still without power, however due to the severity of the wind storm there were a high number of incidents our crew needed to attend to," a spokesperson said.

Evoenergy crews were prioritising damage where there was risk to public safety, such as powerlines down and tree branches interfering with powerlines. The company warned people to stay clear of fallen or low powerlines, as well as objects such as fences or trees that are in contact with them, as they could conduct electricity, and to report damage to electricity or gas infrastructure to 13 10 93 for electricity and 13 19 09 for gas.

The weather earlier prompted the Emergency Services Agency to declare a total fire ban for Tuesday. However, the agency spokeswoman said a ban was not expected to be put in place for Wednesday.

"There is no indication that there will be a total fire ban again tomorrow, but we will review it in the morning," she said on Tuesday evening.

Thredbo recorded an average wind of 94km/h gusting to 124km/h at 9.30am. In the ACT, Mount Ginini at Namadgi recorded a wind gust of 89 km/h at 3:20pm, and the airport recorded a top gust of 82km/h.

The government said people should follow these precautions in the dust storm:

  • leave the area for a cleaner environment;
  • stay indoors, with windows and doors closed;
  • stay in air-conditioning and switch the air-conditioner to "recycle" or "recirculate" to reduce the amount of dust entering the building;
  • visit a local air-conditioned building such as a library, community centre or shopping centre;
  • avoid vigorous exercise, especially if you have a heart or lung condition;
  • if you have a heart or lung condition, follow your treatment plan prescribed by your doctor; and
  • if it is safe to do so, check on elderly neighbours or other people who you think might need extra help.

During the total fire ban, people are prohibited from:

  • Lighting, maintaining or using a fire in the open air
  • Using fireworks in the open air
  • Doing a high risk activity such as welding, grinding, soldering and gas cutting
  • Using slashers and harvesting machinery in rural areas

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