Smoke blanket covers Australian capital, department responsible for managing emergencies shut

Australian federal government department responsible for managing emergencies shut its Canberra office due to poor air quality on Monday as the nation’s capital choked on smoke from deadly bushfires.

Canberra had a rating over 340 on the Air Quality Index — higher than Beijing’s 170. Australia has been ravaged by some of the worst wildfires seen in decades, with the massive blazes destroying homes, devastating wildlife, turning skies blood red, and leaving a total of 24 people dead nationwide.

The Department of Home Affairs told non-essential staff to stay away from its Canberra headquarters, while the Department of Health told staff not to work out of one of its locations. Child care services in the city were also shut.

Elsewhere in Australia on Monday, cooler weather and rain gave firefighters some relief. “It’s a psychological relief if nothing else,” Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSWRFS) said.

There are 136 active blazes in NSW alone, including 69 that are uncontained, the NSWRFS said in a tweet early Monday. In Victoria state, there are still 31 active fires and more than 1.1 million hectares (4,247 square miles) of land has been burned.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison cautioned that for some states, the most difficult fire seasons could be later in January and February.