(CNN) — The Australian federal government department responsible for managing emergencies shut its Canberra office due to poor air quality on Monday as the nation’s capital choked on smoke from deadly bushfires.
On Monday, Canberra had a rating over 340 on the Air Quality Index — higher than Beijing’s 170. The rating comes as Australia is ravaged by some of the worst wildfires seen in decades, with the massive blazes destroying homes, devastating wildlife, turning skies blood red, and leaving a total of 24 people dead nationwide.
The Department of Home Affairs told staff to stay away from its Canberra headquarters, CNN affiliate SBS reported, while the Department of Health told staff not to work out of one of its locations. Childcare services in the city were also shut.
YWCA Canberra — which operates a number of childcare centers — said that, like many Canberra organizations, it had opted to close all of its children’s services in the Australian Capital Territory and the rural New South Wales town of Murrumbateman on Monday due to “hazardous smoke conditions.”
“This is to ensure the health and well-being of our staff and the children in our services,” YWCA Canberra said in a statement on its Facebook page.
Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia was also closed on Monday due to the smoke. “Closing our doors allows us to mitigate any risk to the public, staff and works of art on display,” a statement on the gallery’s website said.
Elsewhere in Australia on Monday, cooler weather and rain gave firefighters some relief. Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSWRFS), said Monday that the conditions were a “welcome reprieve” — but it wasn’t putting out the fires.
“It’s a psychological relief if nothing else,” he said, noting that the rains weren’t helping with back burning, a method of controlled burning that helps limit the spread of blazes.
The weather gave firefighters a chance to “take a breath” as they prepared for more emergencies later in the week, Victoria fires incident controller Andy Gillham said,h according to national broadcaster ABC.
NSWRFS spokesman James Morris said firefighters needed weeks of consistent showers to ease the fire threat.
“We’ve seen drought conditions so the ground is very hard. If we get a lot of rain in a short period of time, it’ll sit on the surface and run away,” he said.
There are 136 active blazes in NSW alone, including 69 that are uncontained, the NSWRFS said in a tweet early Monday. In Victoria state, there are still 31 active fires and more than 1.1 million hectares (4,247 square miles) of land has been burned, the Country Fire Authority said in a tweet.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison cautioned that for some states, the most difficult fire seasons would be later in January and February.
“The crisis is not over,” he said. “There are months to go.”