Heavy smoke and hot conditions in the ACT

Smoke will continue to affect the ACT while bushfires in our region continue to burn. During this time, the ACT Health Directorate's advice remains the same.

Update 11 February 2020: This public health alert has been resolved. Air quality in the ACT has returned to good levels. In the event of a sudden onset weather or smoke event (for example, a dust storm or fire) ACT Health undertakes an assessment and will issue a public health alert specific to the event.

Smoke will continue to affect the ACT while bushfires in our region continue to burn. During this time, the ACT Health Directorate's advice remains the same.

Health advice for smoke

Frequently Asked Questions about current air quality, smoke and heat conditions in the ACT.

During periods of heavy smoke, visibility and air quality can be impacted. All Canberrans are advised to minimise their levels of prolonged or heavy physical activity outdoors. When there is heavy smoke in the area it is best to avoid all physical activity outdoors.

Common reactions people may experience with heavy smoke include:

  • itchy or burning eyes
  • throat irritation
  • runny nose, and
  • coughing.

These common irritations are not serious and can be best managed by avoiding prolonged periods outdoors where possible. People can also consider using water-based eye drops and throat lozenges to help alleviate these irritations.

While exposure to smoke can be unpleasant, for healthy people taking measures to limit their exposure, it is unlikely they will be at risk of serious health harms from the current smoke event.

For people sensitive to smoke and air pollution

People who are sensitive to smoke, especially those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions, should take extra care during these conditions.

This includes remaining indoors where possible, with windows and doors closed, and not using evaporative air conditioners which draw air into the house from outside.

Anyone with a heart or lung condition should take their medication as prescribed by their doctor. People with asthma should follow their asthma action plan.

Anyone with concerns about their health should seek medical advice from their doctor. And anyone experiencing wheezing, chest tightness or difficulty breathing should seek urgent medical attention and in the event of a medical emergency call triple-zero (000).

People who can be more vulnerable to smoke and air pollution include:

  • people with heart or lung conditions (including asthma)
  • children aged less than 14 years
  • pregnant women, and
  • people over 65 years of age.

Watch Video - ACT Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerryn Coleman on ways to look after your health in the smoky conditions.

P2/N95 masks

Our advice to the community is that it is best to avoid exposure to the smoke through staying indoors where possible, and not using evaporative air conditioners which draw air into the house from outside.

Ordinary paper masks are not effective at filtering smoke, however do not cause any harm if people choose to wear them and they feel they get some benefit.

Evidence shows P2 and N95 masks do filter some smoke and are most commonly used in occupational settings where exposure to airborne particles occur on a regular basis. However they cannot completely eliminate exposure to smoke, and as they can be difficult to fit and use appropriately, they are not an alternative to avoiding outdoor exposure.

If you choose to use a mask outdoors, please refer to our Use of P2/N95 Masks factsheet and watch this instructional video to learn how to fit the mask properly.

Important notes:

  • People with chronic lung and heart conditions, should seek advice from a health professional prior to using these masks.
  • Masks are not appropriate for use on children, so avoiding exposure is the best way to protect them.

Supply for vulnerable Canberrans

On 6 January 2020 it was announced that P2/N95 masks are being delivered to pharmacies and will be available for people who are most at risk of the health impacts of exposure to the smoke. Masks will also be available through the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service for their clients.

This is the small supply of P2/N95 masks provided by the Commonwealth Government for the ACT.

The groups of particularly sensitive individuals who will be able to access these masks, if they choose, include:

  • people with existing chronic lung and heart conditions, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema, and heart disease
  • all pregnant women, and
  • people over 65 years of age.

Each eligible person will receive two masks at the pharmacy.

ACT Health recommends that people with lung condition, such as chronic obstructive airways disease, asthma or emphysema, and people with chronic heart conditions, should seek advice from their medical practitioner prior to using these masks.

In regards to retail sales of masks, some are available at Canberra pharmacies and hardware stores.

We ask the community to join with us in ensuring that we are supporting the people in our community who are most at risk of the health impacts of the smoke at this time.

The Government is continuing to monitor demand for masks and is working closely with Canberra retailers.


Looking after your mental health and wellbeing

The bushfire and heat events happening right now make for difficult times and many people will be feeling distressed, and at times overwhelmed, by what is happening to them, their families and their community.

It’s normal to feel confused and uncertain about the future and an important aspect of coping is to recognise that you are not alone in how you feel.

Simple things can really help:

  • be kind to yourself and don’t expect to have all the answers, difficult though that might be
  • spend time with and get support from family, friends and other people in the community as expressing how you’re feeling will help relieve distress
  • keep to routines as much as possible and pay attention to basic self-care, such as eating healthily and regularly and maintaining a good sleep pattern, and
  • think about how much media and social media you are accessing as constantly watching or listening to information about distressing events can make things feel worse.

People will need different levels of support and some people, such as children or people with previous mental health difficulties, may be more vulnerable. Using your usual support mechanisms such as your own GP can help.

Many community services also offer counselling and support, and online resources can give you strategies to help manage distress. Details of some of these resources can be found at the links below.

Canberra Health Services offers a full range of mental health support services. More information is available on our Mental Health page.

Lifeline also provides 24 hour phone support if you are experiencing a personal crisis. Phone 13 11 14 or visit the Lifeline website www.lifeline.org.au

Canberra is a supportive and caring community, so reach out to people and support each other.

Online resources to support families and children after a disaster

Air quality monitoring

ACT Health reports on air quality using up-to-date, accurate data on levels of pollutants in the air. We use this information, and data on the 24-hour rolling average concentrations in the air, to determine what our health advice is to the community and the practical ways people can reduce their exposure and worsening of pre-existing chronic health conditions.

Given the extended period Canberra has been experiencing these heavy levels of smoke (from PM2.5), we have received a lot of feedback and requests from the community for hourly air quality monitoring information to be made available.

Hourly PM2.5 concentration levels can be found on our new Fine Particulate (PM2.5) Air Monitoring Data By Station – Average hourly and 24-hourly data page.

This information is presented in a graph together with 24-hour rolling averages.

It will provide people a better understanding of the changing levels of smoke in the air throughout the day, so they can manage their levels of exposure when we are experiencing relatively good air quality levels and as we continue to experience periods of heavy smoke, on and off.

Our health advisories, which are based on 24-hour rolling averages, continue to be available on our Health advice for smoky air page.

We will continue to listen to your feedback and refine air quality information over time on our website, as appropriate. This will likely involve working with national counterparts, noting we are not alone in this.

Staying healthy in the heat

With hot weather conditions expected to continue in the ACT, it is important to be prepared, by having a plan for keeping healthy in the heat.

People who are sensitive to smoke and air pollution can be more vulnerable to heat-related illness as well, staying hydrated and cool is important.

People who are able to do so, are also encouraged to check on others who they think might need extra help, to see that they are okay.

​​​​​​​Where can I find further information?

The ACT Health Directorate is unable to provide individual health advice. If you have any concerns about your health, speak to a health professional.

For further information on minimising the health impacts of outdoor smoke, refer to our factsheet.

If you choose to use a mask outdoors, please refer to our Use of P2/N95 Masks factsheet for further information on how to fit the mask properly.

For further tips on how to beat the heat see our summer safety page.

The ACT Health Directorate is continuing to monitor the air quality in the ACT and will advise the public of additional public health advice if needed. For those interested in monitoring the levels of smoke in the air (PM2.5), see our:

At this time, the smoky air conditions are expected to continue to impact the ACT while bushfires are burning across the border, with dense smoke impacting a large area of our region. For further information on weather conditions, visit: www.bom.gov.au.

State of Emergency

A State of Emergency has been declared in the ACT.

Under a State of Emergency, it is important to follow the advice of emergency services and keep up-to-date on changing conditions.

Regular updates about what this means, what you need to do, support available and changes to services can be found on the ACT ESA website at: www.esa.act.gov.au

Page last updated on: 12 Feb 2020