• Uncle Talgium Edwards has felt the effects of hazardous air-quality due to bush fire smoke (NITV)Source: NITV
Health experts are encouraging the community to stay vigilant, with Victoria's air quality expected to stay poor for months.
Rachael Hocking

15 Jan 2020 - 12:30 PM  UPDATED 15 Jan 2020 - 6:20 PM

When Melbourne's air quality dropped to hazardous levels earlier this week, Victorian Elder Uncle Talgium 'Choco' Edwards struggled. 

"I can feel this smoke affecting me," he said. "No one has ever seen anything like this before. No one in the world has ever seen anything like this before." 

Uncle Talgium, who has emphysema and asthma, told NITV News he is luckier than some, as his flat has an air-conditioner and he has ready access to medical assistance. 

On Wednesday Melbourne's air quality eased slightly to a category of "very poor", but with bushfires still ravaging parts of the state the air in regional areas will remain "moderate to hazardous". 

Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA) has advised people to stay indoors where possible, and to wear P2 face masks when outside. 

However, the country's leading Indigenous research centre Lowitja Institute has concerns about the accessibility of P2 masks to the Indigenous community, and has proposed they be added to the Close the Gap Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). 

"Unfortunately what we've seen, because there haven't been many preventative strategies or thinking around this crisis, we're seeing that a lot of communities actually can't buy them over the counter," Lowitja Institute CEO Janine Mohamed said. 

"We're undeniably the most vulnerable in terms of access to healthcare services... so this would be a great way for the PBS to actually put [P2 masks] on the scheme for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples." 

Concerns about housing 

Advice to stay indoors also comes with issues for many in the community.

Access to proper housing and infrastructure is an ongoing challenge, something Ms Mohamed said is exacerbated in the current climate. 

"There's a real lack of housing that's able to meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people," Ms Mohamed said. 

"We haven't seen the consequences of this yet, and our government really needs to sit down at a COAG level and think about considered planning, and a future response to the consequences of climate change."

In the meantime, Ms Mohamed has encouraged the community to follow expert advice, and to look out for vulnerable people such as Elders, children, and family members who don't have access to a safe home. 

"We know a lot of our families don't have air-conditioning because of our low socio-economic status, but of course families will get together and get into the same house that's got the air conditioning."

Community rallies to distribute P2 masks

Over the past few weeks community members have rallied together to support people sleeping rough.

Fundraisers and online-call outs for P2 masks have been shared widely on Twitter, with concern that information about staying safe is not reaching - or useless - to those most vulnerable.

Rough sleepers can access free indoor pool passes and movie tickets from the City of Melbourne, and the Council for Homeless Persons has compiled a list of additional resources available here. 

With so little information on the long-term health impacts of exposure to bush fire smoke, some of Australia's top pollution experts have proposed a major study to clear to the air. The team of researchers will investigate the health consequences of this bush fire season. 

Victorians brace for increased fire danger
Victorians in the state's fire-ravaged east are bracing for another day of severe to extreme fire danger.