Young, elderly and pregnant residents of a Australian town cloaked in smoke from a coal mine ablaze for three weeks were Friday urged to leave over mounting air quality concerns, AFP reports.
Morwell has been shrouded in haze since a nearby open cut coal mine ignited during a spate of wildfires in Victoria state earlier this month, prompting respiratory health fears.
Victoria state's chief health officer Rosemary Lester issued evacuation advice Friday, encouraging anyone over 65, young children, pregnant women or anyone with heart or lung conditions to "temporarily relocate" from the southern part of the town of 14,000 people.
Fire officials said the challenging, complex blaze was likely to burn for at least 10 more days, with a massive fuel and heat supply.
Residents have complained of breathlessness, headaches, difficulty sleeping and coughing up phlegm or blood.
"We're now into the third week and we know that continued exposure to the smoke increases the risk of bad health outcomes," Lester told reporters.
"What I'm advising today is that people who are in the particular at risk groups... temporarily relocate outside the area."
She stressed that it was "precautionary advice only".
"The air quality has not gone up significantly, there is no significant increase in danger today," she said.
"But the longer the vulnerable people spend in the fine particles from the smoke, then that's a continuing risk to them."
Victoria state Premier Denis Napthine backed Lester's evacuation notice.
"As premier of the state I urge people to follow the advice of the chief medical officer," he said.
Hazardous PM 2.5 particulate matter in the air around the south of Morwell reached 280 micrograms per cubic metre on Thursday, which is more than 11 times Australia's daily threshold level.
The World Health Organisation's safe limit for the small airborne particles which easily penetrate the lungs and have been linked to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths is 25.
Morwell's levels compare with 501 micrograms per cubic metre seen in Beijing on Wednesday, the sixth day of a "orange" smog alert -- the second-highest level -- which saw a rush on face-masks.
Lester defended the decision to delay an evacuation until Friday, some three weeks after the blaze first started, saying her upgrade to the health notice reflected the fact it was likely to continue burning for some time.
"Because we know now that the exposure is likely to continue we think now is the right time to increase the advice to temporary relocation," she said.