Elderly, young to leave area near Australian mine fire burning for 3 weeks

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Children, the elderly and pregnant women have been urged to leave a small Australian town because of health concerns from a fire that has been burning at a nearby coal mine for almost three weeks.

Particulate pollution, which can damage the lungs and respiratory system, has been measured at more than 10 times the recommended daily threshold in the area around the fire near South Morwell, about 150 km east of the Victoria state capital of Melbourne.

The fire at the nearby Hazelwood coal mine, co-owned by GDF SUEZ Australian Energy and Mitsui & Co Ltd, has been burning since Feb 9.

State officials said on Friday that the elderly, young, pregnant women and those with respiratory problems should consider leaving the area because of the threat posed by smoke and ash.

"We are now into the third week and we know that continued exposure to the smoke increases the risk of bad health outcomes," Victoria's chief health officer, Dr Rosemary Lester, told reporters.

Authorities in the area have handed out about 25,000 face masks, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported.

Victoria Fire Service Commissioner Craig Lapsley said any improvement was unlikely next week because windy and dry weather was forecast and the fire was expected to burn for at least another 10 days.

"That worries us," he said.

Victoria's Environment Protection Agency rated the air quality in the area at 834. A rating over 150 is considered very poor.

About 80 staff at the nearby Hazelwood power station had to be evacuated after the fire jumped from the coal mine and spread into surrounding bushland, officials said.

Police said this week they were searching for an arsonist who was believed to have started the fire.

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