Victoria faces more hazardous air as East Gippsland residents shelter on beach from bushfire

Josh Taylor
Photograph: Michael Dodge/EPA

Environmental authorities have warned much of Victoria is set for another smoky day on Wednesday, but conditions are expected to improve with rain forecast for large parts of the state by the afternoon.

The forecast comes after small group of residents still in a town cut off by bushfire were forced to shelter on the beach after a blaze in Victoria’s East Gippsland flared.

Only about 12 people remain at Tamboon and most of them sought protection by the water overnight, the State Control Centre said on Wednesday. An emergency warning remained in place for the fire, but authorities were maintaining contact with the group and a Victoria police boat was available to get the residents if they needed to leave.

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The Environmental Protection Agency in Victoria issued a hazardous air quality alert for much of the state until at least 5pm.

“When you reach the hazardous air quality range anyone can develop symptoms,” chief health officer Brett Sutton said on Tuesday.

“There can be eye, nose and throat irritation, people can have a cough develop or worse, or even wheeze.”

At hazardous level people are advised to stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed.

The Bureau of Meteorology stated there was a 80% chance of rainfall and a possible thunderstorm in Melbourne during the afternoon and evening with up to 15mm of rain. The rain would help disperse the smoke and would result in an improved air quality rating.

The seven-day forecast predicts several days of rain for the state and cooler temperatures with maximums in the low 20s.

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On Tuesday, Victorians were breathing the worst air quality in the world due to the smoke that had blanketed the state from the bushfires in Victoria’s east and from New South Wales.

A number of sporting events and venues were shut for the day, and Slovenian tennis player Dalia Jakupovic was forced to abandon her Australian Open qualifying match at Melbourne Park due to a coughing fit while playing in the smoke.

Tennis Australia delayed the start of the qualifiers on Wednesday by three hours, and has said it would consult with environmental authorities in making future decisions on whether it is safe for players to compete while the smoke still lingers in Victoria.

The first matches on court on Wednesday won’t be until at least 1pm, and practice has been suspended until 11am.

Climate and Health Alliance executive director Fiona Armstrong called on governments to consider issuing text message alerts for air pollution.

“Governments should also issue advice to councils, schools, childcare centres and workplaces with high numbers of outdoor workers so they are aware of their responsibilities to the people under their care or employment,” she said.

The federal government distributed 450,000 P2 face masks to the Victorian government earlier this month for high-risk members of the public, and Armstrong called for the program to be expanded to everyone in smoke-affected areas.

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The rain was not expected to provide much relief for firefighters in the state’s north-east and east, with less than 5mm of rain predicted for those areas.

The fire in Tamboon was the only one in Victoria’s fire-ravaged East Gippsland and north-east, as milder conditions provided a slight reprieve for fire crews to get on top of containment lines.

On Wednesday there were 17 fires still going in Victoria and more than 1.4 million hectares burnt.

There were 1,500 firefighters battling the blazes, including 130 from overseas and another 140 international personnel will arrive later in January.