Australia fires: Family blames teenager’s death on bushfire smoke

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image captionCourtney Partridge-McLennan died in November

One night last November, Courtney Partridge-McLennan said goodnight to her family in Australia and went to sleep in her room.

At some point in following hours, the 19-year-old woman suffered a suspected asthma attack. When her parents checked on her the next morning, Courtney had died.

Her family believes that Courtney's death in Glen Innes, New South Wales, was triggered by smoke from nearby bushfires. Like many populated areas across Australia's east, the town has been shrouded by smoke in recent months.

"She was found with her phone torch on, as though she was looking for something," her sister, Cherylleigh, told the BBC's Outside Source programme. "Her Ventolin [inhaler] was on the bed with her."

Courtney was diagnosed with asthma as a child. It was not usually severe but tended to flare up around dust and air pollutants, according to her sister.

"She had no symptoms before she went to bed," Cherylleigh said.

"She was healthy and that's what made it the biggest shock for us. It was so out of nowhere."

Cherylleigh said preliminary autopsy reports had listed the cause of death as "unconfirmed". But she added her parents had been told that Courtney had a "hyper-extension of the lungs" - one indicator of an asthma attack.

"Initially when they found her, the comments were, 'oh it definitely looks like an asthma attack, it looked like it happened really quickly,'" Cherylleigh said.

media captionPeople in Sydney woke up to a city shrouded in smoke on Tuesday, as bushfires rage across the region

According to health officials, asthmatics are particularly vulnerable in Australia's ongoing bushfire crisis. The condition narrows a person's airways when triggered by irritants in the air.

In recent months, cities including Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide have recorded some the worst air quality readings globally.

In rural communities closer to the fire-zones, the impact has been even greater.

A fortnight before Courtney's death on 28 November, bushfires ripped through Glen Innes, causing the deaths of two people.

But fires had burned in the region since September, and smoke continued to affect the town afterwards. Her family believes this was the trigger for her asthma attack.

Health officials have consistently warned of the dangers of bushfire smoke, urging those with asthma - about one in nine Australians - to carry their treatments with them.

"It can be a really frightening experience when [one is] exposed to triggers like bushfire smoke," said Michele Goldman from advocacy group Asthma Australia.

"They can experience breathlessness and wheezing, and symptoms can quickly deteriorate into a very serious asthma attack which can be fatal."

She fears that because the condition is common, and often mild, there is a sense of complacency - even amid the unprecedented smoke.

Cherylleigh said Courtney had been studying to be a youth worker, and had been passionate about helping others.

"For us, it's about getting people aware that asthma is this serious," Cherylleigh said.

"Courtney's death was not an isolated incident."

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