It’s about this time of the year that the PR machine of the City Of Sydney Council swings into overdrive to promote the annual New Year’s Eve fireworks. We always hear that the pyrotechnics will be bigger and better than ever, along with the gross exaggeration that a billion people will be tuning in worldwide to watch the display. This year however that hyperbole has a very hollow ring to it as NSW burns and the city is shrouded in a choking post-apocalyptic smoke haze.
The Lord Mayor Clover Moore is obviously aware of this situation and the promotion so far has been appropriately subdued. The Council have made a large donation to the bushfire appeal, at the same time dismissing any suggestion that the fireworks might be cancelled. Given that the whole $6 million shebang was locked in months ago, they don’t seem to have much choice and it would be a brave and costly decision to pull the plug on the celebration with only a few weeks to go.
Nevertheless, the idea of Sydney skies lighting up on New Year’s Eve in a multi-million dollar extravaganza whilst much of the State is in turmoil, is not easy to accept. With little rain forecast and what could be a pivotal moment when it comes to climate change, the current situation could continue well into 2020. Those with a vested interest in the fireworks must be praying that blue skies will once again appear prior to December 31.
Each year thousands of punters, including many children, flock to the strategic viewing points from the very early morning, often sitting out their coveted positions for twelve hours or more before the 9 pm fireworks. There’s a strong probability they could be in for a marathon inhalation of the acrid and toxic smoke that has been declared a major health hazard. If that’s the case face masks will clearly outsell the usual NYE merch of glows sticks and party horns.
If the smoke haze does persist in its current intensity it’s unlikely the NYE fireworks will have little effect in exacerbating the situation. That was not the case back in May of 1959 when smoke from Sydney bonfires and fireworks was so bad it forced the closure of the airport. This was not NYE, but a celebration of British Empire Day, better known as ‘cracker night’.
With thousands of neighbourhood bonfires and backyard fireworks across the suburbs, Sydney was consumed by exactly the same kind of choking smoke haze we see today. The Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time that “the haze hampered viewing at many drive-in theatres” and “on the Harbour ships’ fog sirens sounded continuously.” They also recounted how “hospitals and ambulance men treated nearly 100 people for burns” and “police and firemen answered dozens of calls to bonfires out of control.”
This, of course, was an entirely different era when it came to fireworks, which were freely available in shops and supermarkets and were a massive consumer item on cracker night. Apart from flower pots and Catherine wheels there were ‘bungers’ and ‘double bungers’, small exploding dynamite like sticks which could easily blow off a finger – and often did. Unlike today, cigarette smoking had few restrictions and it was not uncommon to see a dad, happily puffing away, perusing bags of fireworks with his kiddies in Woolworths.
The last cracker night was in 1986, after which the sale of fireworks was banned and today anyone caught selling, purchasing, or letting off fireworks without a licence faces a fine of up to $27,500 and 12 months in jail. And so we now get our fireworks hit in one big spectacular on NYE, regardless of whether there is a total fire ban throughout the city and State.
The ultimate irony here would be if it absolutely poured rain on NYE, bringing relief to the thousands of incredibly brave firefighters across the State, washing away the suffocating smoke pall over Sydney but turning the Harbour spectacle into a real fizzer. We desperately need rain and if the heavens decide to open on December 31, it will certainly be a case of HAPPY NEW YEAR!