Apocalypse 2020, Canberra: Day 1

New Year's Eve was the clearest day for over a month, with blue skies visible and hardly any smoke haze at all. It was even relatively cool - low 30s, centigrade. We all rushed around opening doors and windows, airing our houses and hanging out washing, and enjoying the outdoors. Meanwhile, along the coast a couple of hours drive away the news was worsening: towns evacuating to the beach, into boats, onto lakes. The Navy was called out and a couple of ships set sail from Sydney, to help with refueling and evacuating duties. The roads to the coast were cut off, the power was going out, and nobody knew when the phone lines would crash. The last pictures showed nightmare scenes: children wearing facemasks as their boats puttered away into the midday darkness, fleeing the glowing orange shore.

As evening closed in we left for a small backyard gathering. As I stepped out the front door a drop of water fell on my face and I swore, startled: I haven't felt rain since September, when I was in a completely different and much wetter country. In our friend's backyard we stood around in the open, drinking beers (well, I had a shandy) and enjoying the light spattering of rain. It wasn't enough to put out a fire, but at least it might give the firefighters a chance to control a few fire fronts, maybe even get some backburning done.

Then, in the space of twenty minutes around 6pm, the smoke rolled in. We were sitting under the shed door, playing some retro video games, when we noticed the smell. Unlike the dank, stale smoke of the past weeks this was fresh and it smelt close, like someone next door had lit a campfire.

It wasn't a campfire.

The smoke just kept rolling in, thicker and thicker. Even my eyes - apparently unaffected by the weeks of smoke before - started to sting. Everything tasted like smoke. The RFS Fires Near Me app said there was no new fire, just the same record breaking monsters that we've watched since spring.

We drove home through a ghost town. This was worse than the worst ever fog. No police cars. No other partygoers. No kangaroos or rabbits dashing across the roads in front of us, although we could barely see the sides of the road. When I climbed out the passenger side of the car, I could see a haze of smoke around my husband, getting out on the driver's side.

This morning he set his air filter up in the living room, running on the turbo setting. At 10am friends arrived: they needed respite from the smoke. They wore industrial facemasks, even inside, mopping reddened eyes and wheezing. We sat around the air filter, becoming experts in air quality indexes as we checked hourly updates. The Air Quality Index says that pollutant levels over 200 are hazardous. As we went to bed, they reached 2000. By morning they were well over 3000. Carbon monoxide levels are considered poor at 100; they peaked early this morning, about 5am, a little over 240.

As the day progressed, households sent people out to scour shops for more facemasks, and a few businesses opened despite the public holiday to sell them at discounted prices. People turned off their evaporative coolers (the kind that draw air in from outside the house) and hung wet towels over gaps in windows and doors. By early afternoon, as the carbon monoxide levels dropped back below 150, bad moods and short tempers eased and we were able to offer each other snippets of positive thinking: at least the cooler temperature and lack of wind would be a benefit to the firefighters. At least the fires were still a good 40km away.

Later in the afternoon, with carbon monoxide levels now back to fair at 68, but the pollutants still climbing, even the hardiest eyes began to sting and tempers once again frayed as the thickness and intensity of the smoke brought back visceral memories of past bushfires.

Pollutant levels peaked about 8pm at 5185 - almost 26 times the levels considered hazardous. Three hours later a light breeze has brought an easing, and the pollutants are slightly below 5000 - although the carbon monoxide is creeping back up.

The cooler, less windy conditions have allowed many to flee the coast along temporarily opened roads, through precarious conditions, bringing them home to the relative safety of a city that is not at present on fire, although it certainly smells like it. My son is asleep in my bed, near the air filter, exhaustion having overtaken nausea and stinging eyes. We are desperate for relief, but we know that any wind strong enough to clear our air will cost more houses, and maybe lives.