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Bushfire smoke blankets Sydney and large parts of NSW as RFS prepares for 'real challenges'

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 18/11/2019

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The Sydney CBD is barely visible from much of the city as a thick smoke haze from the bushfires chokes large parts of NSW, with health experts warning those with medical conditions to stay inside.

The Department of Environment said the smoke had pushed air quality beyond "hazardous" levels in Sydney's north-west, the northern tablelands and the north-west slopes.

The smoke is spreading from the Gospers Mountain fire, which has burnt more than 120,000 hectares north-west of Sydney and remains an out-of-control fire.

a large body of water: Smoke haze blanketing Sydney on Tuesday. (AAP: Neil Bennett) © Provided by Australian Broadcasting Corporation Smoke haze blanketing Sydney on Tuesday. (AAP: Neil Bennett)

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As of this morning there were 48 fires burning across the state, with 23 uncontained, and today's hot and windy conditions have the Rural Fire Service (RFS) on high alert.

"Many of the active fires may spread," an RFS spokesperson said.

There are 1,400 firefighters working to curb the spread of those fires, but RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said there was "the potential for real challenges".

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 19: Vistors at Mrs Macquarie's Chair overlook a smoke covered Sydney Harbour on November 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. NSW remains under severe or very high fire danger warnings as more than 50 fires continue to burn across the state. Six lives and 530 homes have been lost since NSW bushfire season hit, with more than 420 homes destroyed in the past fortnight alone. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images) © 2019 Getty Images SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 19: Vistors at Mrs Macquarie's Chair overlook a smoke covered Sydney Harbour on November 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. NSW remains under severe or very high fire danger warnings as more than 50 fires continue to burn across the state. Six lives and 530 homes have been lost since NSW bushfire season hit, with more than 420 homes destroyed in the past fortnight alone. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

"We've got not only these high temperatures, the mid to high 30s, the dry atmosphere, but we've got this real mix of converging winds today," he said.

A northerly wind will make its way down the coast and inland, before swinging around to the south-west and strengthening, and later a blustery southerly will travel up the coast.

"We're very mindful of what's likely to unfold today," Mr Fitzsimmons said.

Gallery: Wildfires around the world in 2019 (Photo Services)

The RFS has also warned that fires around the northern rivers district may close the Pacific Highway later today.

Keep windows and doors shut

The air quality is worst in western Sydney, around Richmond and Rouse Hill, where air pollution is around two to three times the national standard.

Richard Broome from the Department of Health said the risks from the smoke were minor for most people, with sore eyes and a sore throat the most common symptoms.

Flames light up the sky during a backburn operation in the forest along the northeastern side of the Kilmore East-Murrindini North fire near Jamieson, some 120 kms northeast of Melbourne on March 3, 2009.  Firefighters battling Australia's worst wildfire outbreak had a reprieve on March 3 when predicted extreme conditions gave way to light rain and mild temperatures.  AFP PHOTO/Paul CROCK (Photo credit should read PAUL CROCK/AFP via Getty Images) © 2009 AFP Flames light up the sky during a backburn operation in the forest along the northeastern side of the Kilmore East-Murrindini North fire near Jamieson, some 120 kms northeast of Melbourne on March 3, 2009. Firefighters battling Australia's worst wildfire outbreak had a reprieve on March 3 when predicted extreme conditions gave way to light rain and mild temperatures. AFP PHOTO/Paul CROCK (Photo credit should read PAUL CROCK/AFP via Getty Images)

However, people who have pre-existing conditions like asthma or emphysema may be at slightly higher risk of developing problems.

"[For those people] it's actually better to stay indoors, keeping your windows and doors shut," he said.

But with no end in sight for the fires, which kicked off earlier than normal this year, Dr Broome advised people to adapt.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 19: Vistors at Mrs Macquarie's Chair walk in front of a smoke covered Sydney skyline on November 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. NSW remains under severe or very high fire danger warnings as more than 50 fires continue to burn across the state. Six lives and 530 homes have been lost since NSW bushfire season hit, with more than 420 homes destroyed in the past fortnight alone. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images) © 2019 Getty Images SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 19: Vistors at Mrs Macquarie's Chair walk in front of a smoke covered Sydney skyline on November 19, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. NSW remains under severe or very high fire danger warnings as more than 50 fires continue to burn across the state. Six lives and 530 homes have been lost since NSW bushfire season hit, with more than 420 homes destroyed in the past fortnight alone. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

"People just need to build it into their routine a little bit for the next period of time," he said.

NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys advised people to avoid spending large amounts of time in the heat and take care with car use.

"We would really like to urge people to make good decisions, to make sure that when they are using motor vehicles, that they do not leave their pets, they do not leave young children, do not leave vulnerable people inside of those vehicles locked for any period of time," he said.

A National Parks & Wildlife firefighter ignites a back-burn along a containment line in the forest along the north-eastern side of the Kilmore East-Murrindini North fire near Jamieson some 120km north-east of Melbourne, on March 3, 2009. Firefighters battling Australia's worst wildfire outbreak had a reprieve on March 3 when predicted extreme conditions gave way to light rain and mild temperatures.  AFP PHOTO/Paul CROCK (Photo credit should read PAUL CROCK/AFP via Getty Images) © 2009 AFP A National Parks & Wildlife firefighter ignites a back-burn along a containment line in the forest along the north-eastern side of the Kilmore East-Murrindini North fire near Jamieson some 120km north-east of Melbourne, on March 3, 2009. Firefighters battling Australia's worst wildfire outbreak had a reprieve on March 3 when predicted extreme conditions gave way to light rain and mild temperatures. AFP PHOTO/Paul CROCK (Photo credit should read PAUL CROCK/AFP via Getty Images)

"We've seen tragic results from that in the past and we will see it again if people make poor decisions around that."

Many Sydneysiders struggled in this morning's smoky conditions.

"My eyes are stinging, my daughter's coughing her guts out," said one woman at Milsons Point.

Smoke haze covers Sydney, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, as wildfires burn near the city. The annual Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, has started early after an unusually warm and dry winter. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft) © ASSOCIATED PRESS Smoke haze covers Sydney, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, as wildfires burn near the city. The annual Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, has started early after an unusually warm and dry winter. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Another said: "It's disgusting. I was woken up about two o'clock this morning and it was terrible."

"I'm finding it difficult to breathe and I don't have any health issues."

Personal trainer Stanley Sithole said some of his clients didn't turn out for their session this morning, heeding the advice of health authorities.

a man standing in front of a sunset: The Sydney Opera House is seen as a smoke haze hits Sydney © Reuters/STRINGER The Sydney Opera House is seen as a smoke haze hits Sydney

"Some people have cancelled today … they have that option, and I will go ahead with people that want to train but I will do modified training."

Client Andrew Kaldor, who's in his 70s, wasn't too bothered by the thick smoke.

"In exercising, you're always running out of breath so it doesn't matter all that much," he said.

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