More than 16 million acres have gone up in flames. And it has happened in populated areas, unlike most of the world’s other blazes of this scale. Why these Australia fires are like nothing we had ever seen before?
Sydney, Australia — In late October, lightning struck brittle earth on Gospels Mountain in New South Wales. The remains of trees bone dry from consecutive winters with little to no rain were ignited, and the fire quickly spread.
Three months later, it is still burning. That fire is now largely contained. But dozens of others are still burning in the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, some out of control, despite heavy rain in some areas in recent days. And fire season is far from over — hot and windy conditions are expected to return this week.
The modern world has never seen anything quite like these Australia fires. About 16 million acres have burned in New South Wales and Victoria, where the crisis is centered. That’s an area about the size of West Virginia. Millions more acres have burned in other parts of the country.
The numbers from Australia dwarf those from some of the most high-profile fires in recent years.
The bushfires in southeastern Australia this season have burned about eight times as much land as the 2018 fires in California, which covered nearly two million acres and were the worst in that state’s recorded history.
Australia has had deadlier fire seasons: The Black Saturday bushfires, which began in February 2009 when downed power lines ignited blazes that were spread by 60-mile-per-hour winds, killed 173 people in Victoria. The 2018 California fires killed 103 people.
But the losses Australia is experiencing in lives and property are still staggering, and not yet over. At least 29 people have been killed. Hundreds of millions of animals, by some estimates, have perished or are facing starvation or dehydration in devastated habitats. And more than 2,500 homes have been destroyed.
Smoke generated by the fires has blanketed Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra, at times giving them some of the worst air in the world. The prolonged exposure of bushfire smoke to millions of people has raised fears of health effects that could last for years.
The fires have also produced huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon emissions. A top expert on greenhouse gas emissions at Australia’s national research agency told NPR that the fires in southeastern Australia had produced as much carbon as the entire country emits from man-made sources in more than eight months of the year.
Why have these fires been so vast? While Australia is normally hot and dry in the summer, climate change is bringing longer and more frequent periods of extreme heat. That makes vegetation drier and more likely to burn.
High temperatures, strong winds, and dry forests have combined to create the conditions for powerful fires. There have even been blazes in wetlands and rainforests that have not contended with this threat before. To combat the flames, tens of thousands of firefighters, most of them volunteers, have been called on to work long days over extended periods.
Most of the fires have been caused by lightning strikes, though some people have misleadingly pointed to arson in an effort to minimize the links to climate change and the Australian government’s inaction on the issue. Others have argued that the drought is unrelated to climate change, though there is evidence that warming temperatures have been a major contributor to it, in part by pushing rain out of areas where it once fell.
While scientists have long predicted that climate change would bring longer and more intense fire seasons, the blazes were not expected to be this bad this soon, Dr. Bradstock said. Under his projections, Australia would not have seen this kind of devastation for another 40 to 50 years
In Australia’s history, most bad fire seasons have coincided with the warming of an El Niño pattern.
Australia’s drought shows few signs of ending and temperatures are expected to continue to climb after the warmest decade on record.
Although recent cooler conditions and rain have brought some respite, more than 60 fires are still burning in the states of New South Wales and Victoria.
Hot and windy conditions are forecast to return to many parts of New South Wales this week.
Some 30 people have so far been killed – including four firefighters – and more than 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km or 24.7 million acres) of bush, forest, and parks across Australia has burned.
New South Wales and Victoria have been worst affected
In the worst-hit state, New South Wales (NSW), fire has affected more than five million hectares, destroying more than 2,000 houses and forcing thousands to seek shelter elsewhere.
More than 1,100 firefighters are currently working to slow the spread of fires and shore up containment lines
Victoria, where fires have burned 1.2 million hectares, extended a “state of disaster” for the worst-hit areas from 2 to 11 January, allowing authorities to enforce evacuations and let emergency services take over properties.
Three people – including one firefighter – have died in Victoria and around 20 fires are burning.
The military has sent troops, ships, and aircraft to the region to help relocation and firefighting efforts.
South Australia has also suffered
Two people and an estimated 25,000 koalas were killed when flames devastated Kangaroo Island in the state of South Australia on 9 January.
The island is renowned for its unique mix of animal species – and there are fears it may never recover.
Tens of thousands of farm animals, mainly sheep, were also killed in the fire on the island.
Experts have expressed concerns over the survival of endangered species on the island which include the dunnart – a mouse-like marsupial – and the black glossy cockatoo.
Fires are also thought to have destroyed up to a third of the vines that provide grapes for the Adelaide Hills wine industry.
Smoke from fires has become a major hazard
Smoke is a hazard in itself. It’s an irritating pollutant that exacerbates respiratory illnesses and heart problems. Fine particles from the smoke and soot can be smaller than 2.5 micrometers — tiny enough to lodge themselves into the crannies of the lungs and pass into the bloodstream.
“The biggest health threat from smoke comes from fine particles,” the US Environmental Protection Agency explains
. “These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they can cause health problems such as burning eyes, runny nose, and illnesses such as bronchitis. Fine particles also can aggravate chronic heart and lung diseases — and even are linked to premature deaths in people with these conditions.”
Humans are sometimes to blame for starting the fires, but they are also often sparked by natural causes, such as lightning striking dry vegetation.
Once fires have started, other areas are at risk, with embers blown by the wind causing blazes to spread to new areas.
Bush fires themselves can also drive thunderstorms, increasing the risk of lightning strikes and further fires.
If there is a serious risk of fire reaching homes or properties, authorities urge people to leave in good time as fire can travel fast – faster than most people can run.
most people can run.
By the end of the month, every state had measured temperatures above 40C – including Tasmania, which is usually much cooler than the mainland.
And meteorologists warn that, for the moment, the intense weather and elevated fire risk in Australia is set to continue.
The fires in Australia – which are still burning – have so far killed 29 people and an estimated one billion animals,
scorching 17.1 million hectares, more than two-thirds the size of the United Kingdom.
Australia’s usual bushfire season started in spring rather than the more usual summer – and hit much harder because of the hot, dry conditions. Rainfall was reportedly 40% lower across the country last year.
Every year in Australia, fires are started by any number of things. They can start accidentally through a spark from a chainsaw or from a barbeque.Rural Fire Services have said some of the biggest fires in New South Wales were started by “dry lightning”
. This occurs without any accompanying rain reaching the ground and strikes dried-up land and vegetation. Some fires are even generating their own thunderstorms, which creates lightning, which then starts more fires.
So the unprecedented nature of these fires is not because there has been a sudden increase in malicious activity: it’s because of climate change
The truth is that numerous towns and cities have been shrouded in fire-ash pollution, meaning keeping the doors and windows closed in the middle of the summer. In a heatwave.
Experts have warned
of the long term health effects to people – especially young children – as a result of the toxic haze.
Indoor air purifiers have nearly sold out.
Children can’t play outside. Babies and toddlers can’t even breathe without it affecting their health. There is even a concern that urban water supplies will become pollutedwith ash.
Despite these conditions, people have taken to the streets – there country is quite literally on fire. As climate change has become a terrifying reality affecting many Australians directly, powerful actors – who always claimed it wouldn’t have any real impact – are making desperate attempts to distract the public from their lack of action.
These fires are devastating and have caused apocalyptic losses of human life, wildlife, and forests. The bravery of firefighters and the resourcefulness of communities has rightfully been and should continue to be, commended.
Australia is being ravaged by the worst wildfires seen in decades, with large swaths of the country devastated
since the fire season began in late July.
At least 28 people have died nationwide, and in the state of New South Wales (NSW) alone, more than 3,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged. State and federal authorities are struggling to contain the massive blazes, even with firefighting assistance from other countries, including the United States.
All this has been exacerbated by persistent heat and drought, and many point to climate change as a factor making natural disasters go from bad to worse.
Where are the fires?
There have been fires in every Australian state, but New South Wales has been the hardest hit.
Blazes have torn through bushland, wooded areas, and national parks like the Blue Mountains. Some of Australia’s largest cities have also been affected, including Melbourne and Sydney — where fires have damaged homes in the outer suburbs and thick plumes of smoke have blanketed the urban center. Earlier in December, the smoke was so bad in Sydney that air quality measured 11 times the “hazardous” level.
The fires range in area from small blazes — isolated buildings or part of a neighborhood — to massive infernos that occupy entire hectares of land. In NSW alone, more than 100 fires are still burning.
What is causing the fires?
Each year there is a fire season during the Australian summer, with hot, dry weather making it easy for blazes to start and spread. Natural causes are to blame most of the time, like lightning strikes in drought-affected forests. Dry lightning was responsible for starting a number of fires in Victoria’s East Gippsland region in late December, which then traveled more than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) in just five hours.
NSW police have charged at least 24 people with deliberately starting bushfires, and have taken legal action against 183 people for fire-related offenses since November
Why are the fires so bad?
Australia is experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades, a heatwave in December broke the record
for highest nationwide average temperature, with some places sweltering under temperatures well above 40 degrees Celsius.
Strong winds have also made the fires and smoke spread more rapidly, and have led to fatalities
Experts say climate change has worsened
the scope and impact of natural disasters like fires and floods — weather conditions are growing more extreme, and for years, the fires have been starting earlier in the season and spreading with greater intensity.
What has been the damage so far?
Entire towns have been engulfed in flames, and residents across several states have lost their homes. The heaviest structural damage occurred in NSW, the country’s most populated state, where 1,588 homes have been destroyed and over 650 damaged.
In total, more than 7.3 million hectares (17.9 million acres) have been burned across Australia’s six states — an area larger than the countries of Belgium and Denmark combined. The worst-affected state is NSW, with more than 4.9 million hectares (12.1 million acres) burned.
How many animals have died?
About half a billion animals have been affected
by the fires across NSW, with millions likely dead — and that’s a conservative estimate. That number of total animals affected could be as high as one billion nationwide, according to ecologists from the The University of Sydney.
The figures for NSW include birds, reptiles, and mammals, except bats. It also excludes insects and frogs, so the real sum is almost certain to be higher
These are pretty good estimates based on previous research on population density — but until the fires stop, researchers have no way of surveying just how extensive the damage is, and exactly how many animals have died.
There are more than 2,000 firefighters working on the ground in NSW alone, and more support is on the way
The federal government has also sent in military assistance
like army personnel, air force aircraft, and navy cruisers for firefighting, evacuation, search and rescue, and clean-up efforts
An estimated 1.25 billion animals
have been lost, and scientists fear long-term damage
to many sensitive ecosystems.
The severity of the widespread fires is a symptom of global warming
, and the blazes may even contribute to it — at least in the short term. Australia’s bushfires have released 400 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,
.Meanwhile, some of the fires are under better control after some flooding rain
and golf ball-sized hail
(Melbourne was hit with a month’s worth of rain in one day over the weekend). But others are burning on
Before the fires ignited, Australia was already enduring its hottest and driest year on record
. It’s summertime in the southern hemisphere, and the heat keeps rising.
Much of the severe heat was accompanied by brisk winds
across much of Australia, which exacerbates fire risks and spreads blazes. “The intensity and size of bushfires in some areas has led to the creation of their own weather systems,” the Red Cross reported
on January 8, “generating pyrocumulonimbus clouds, trapping heat and generating strong wind and lightning strikes, in turn sparking further fires.”
This summer’s high temperatures and subsequent fires are linked to climate change, which drives long-term warming trends and makes these kinds of events more severe. Australia is also facing a severe drought, spurred by three winters in a row with very little precipitation. With drought conditions, there is less moisture evaporating in the heat, a phenomenon that usually has a cooling effect.
But the country’s geography is also a factor, as well as the unfortunate alignment of a few short-term weather patterns.
And while Australia’s annual monsoon rains
in the northern part of the country packed a devastating wallop in February, causing dangerous flooding in the state of Queensland, they were also behind schedule this year. That allowed more heat to accumulate over the central part of the country
Wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem in Australia. Many plants and other organisms even depend on regular blazes to germinate, cycle nutrients, and clear decay.
That said, the climate is getting hotter due to human activities. And that extra heat makes fires more likely.
These fires may not be 100 percent attributable to climate change. But you can look at them and, at least, see a vision of the future: Scientists expect to see more extreme wildfires
in Australia in the latter part of this century.
The extreme stress of losing homes, livelihoods, pets, and property can be difficult to cope with. As always in a natural disaster, mental health is a concern. After a major disaster, studies find a 5 percent to 15 percent increase in the incidence of mental health problems among survivors. And there will be a lot of rebuilding to do.
The environmental crisis doesn’t end either when the fires go out. When rains come, all the charred debris from the fire may wash into freshwater sources, polluting it for both aquatic life and human consumption.
On dry land, animals will continue to suffer, too. “There’s going to be ongoing mortalities [i.e. deaths] as the result of starvation — there will be nothing to eat — and the lack of shelter,”
Dozens of fires erupted in New South Wales, Australia. Fires rapidly spread across all states to become some of the most devastating on record. An area about the size of South Korea, roughly 25.5 million acres
, has burned. At least 27 people are dead,
The smoke has become another disaster. On January 1st, Australia’s capital recorded the worst pollution it’s ever seen, with an air quality index 23 times higher than what’s considered “hazardous.”The smoke reached New Zealand, 1,000 miles away, where it has created eerie scenes atop glacier-covered peaks.
More than 100 fires are still burning.
More than 1 billion mammals, birds, and reptiles likely lost their lives in the blazes. Around 25,000 koalas
were feared dead on Kangaroo Island.and about 30 percent of the koalas’ habitat has also been wiped out.
The continent is home to 244 species that are not found anywhere else. The region also has the highest rate of native mammals becoming extinct over the past 200 years.
Weather conditions feeding the fires are historic. Australia suffered from its hottest day on record.
. This season’s fires, however, are unprecedented.
How are the fires being fought?
Australia relies heavily on volunteer firefighters, especially in the rural bush where much of the fires are burning. Its fire response relies more heavily on community efforts compared to places like the United States that have centralized fire management systems. The current crisis has led to some policy changes.
Experts tell that under the extreme conditions, there’s not much more than firefighters can do until there’s enough rainfall to stop the blazes or the fires run out of fuel and burn themselves out. “It’s not humanly possible to prevent [these fires] or put them out,”
The human, environmental and economic toll of Australia’s devastating wildfires is mounting each day
, but the country has barely begun to grasp the total cost of the “unprecedented” blazes
and how it will change the way people live.
The environmental toll has also been severe. A researcher from the The University of Sydney has estimated that as many as 480 million animals have been killed by wildfires in New South Wales alone since September. Footage of distressed koalas—the iconic Australian bearlike marsupial—approaching people and drinking water has been widely viewed.
Australia’s tourism industry is also bracing for a hit. Apocalyptic images of raging flames, towering clouds of smoke and the charred remains of kangaroos have been beamed across the world.
20 people are dead, thousands of homes have been destroyed and millions of animals killed—and blazes could continue for months
The human, environmental and economic toll of Australia’s devastating wildfires is mounting each day, but the country has barely begun to grasp the total cost of the “unprecedented” blazes and how it will change the way people live.
Igniting two months earlier than the usual start of the Australian fire season, the flames have torn through an area about the size of West Virginia—killing at least 20 people, shrouding cities in choking haze and stretching firefighters to a breaking point.
Severe drought over several years has created tinder-dry conditions, perfect for fires. It has intensified a national debate about the link of rising average global temperatures to the fires and the contribution of Australia—a major coal miner—to global warming.
The death toll is lower than the 173 killed in the Black Saturday fires in Victoria state in 2009 but in other respects these blazes—which could persist until March—are being viewed by experts as unprecedented.
The scorched area is vast, with more than 23,000 square miles burned nationwide since early November. Almost every state has been affected—thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, and tourists visiting summer holiday spots have been trapped by advancing fires.
A koala recovered from burns at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, about 290 miles north of Sydney, in late November. Australia’s insurance council says more than $260 million of claims have been lodged since Nov. 8, when it declared a catastrophe, but that represents a trickle of what is to come. An additional $39 million in claims were lodged before Nov. 8 for fires in September and October. Claims typically peak a couple of months after a disaster but can still be received up to a year later, said the council’s spokesman, Campbell Fuller.It is still too dangerous for property owners to return to some areas and many communities in the two worst-affected regions—southern New South Wales state and eastern Victoria—have no power or telecommunications.“We’re talking several thousand homes destroyed, thousands more badly damaged, thousands of acres of farmland, vineyards, orchards, grain crops, livestock absolutely destroyed,” Mr. Fuller said. “The economic impact on Australia is going to be far above and beyond purely the raw numbers of insurance losses.”The environmental toll has also been severe. A researcher from the University of Sydney has estimated that as many as 480 million animals have been killed by wildfires in New South Wales alone since September. Footage of distressed koalas—the iconic Australian bearlike marsupial—approaching people and drinking water has been widely view wildfires have blackened more than 22,000 square miles so far
Large tracts of the country’s famous eucalyptus, also known as the gum tree, have been razed, and there are fears that forests might be permanently stunted.
Thomas Fairman, a forestry ecologist, said Australia’s gum-tree forests are typically able to bounce back from a severe fire every two decades or so. But, he said, his research suggests that resilience wanes when severe fires occur in relatively short succession, such as twice or more a decade.
Some alpine forests of gum trees and other species have already collapsed in Victoria’s highlands due to repeated fires between 2003 and 2014, he said, which in turn endangers the wildlife that depends on them for survival.
Australia’s carbon emissions have also ballooned. Niels Andela, an assistant research scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who helps maintain the Global Fire Emissions Database said fires in Australia’s New South Wales alone from August through Dec. 31 emitted 260 million tons of carbon dioxide—nearly half of the country’s regular annual greenhouse-gas emissions according to government data.
He said there is “large uncertainty” about the figures because the fires in 2019 were extreme compared with the historical observations that the estimates of emissions are based on. Final data could take months, he said.
“These fires will have an effect on the earth’s climate; they’re certainly having an effect on the earth’s CO2 concentrations,” said David Bowman, a professor of phytogeography and director of the fire center at the University of Tasmania. “The forests are so stressed and damaged they may never recover.”
Australia’s tourism industry is also bracing for a hit. Apocalyptic images of raging flames, towering clouds of smoke and the charred remains of kangaroos have been beamed across the world.
But the Australian Tourism Industry Council fears that effects of the disaster will be felt most keenly by the small and midsize businesses that cater to Australian holidaymakers. Australians traveling within their own country accounts for about 75% of the more than $100 billion annual spending by tourists.
Has climate change caused the fires?
Bushfires are a regular feature in Australia’s calendar – often triggered by natural causes such as lightning strikes – and cannot be blamed on climate change or rising greenhouse gas emissions alone.
But experts say that the changing climate is key to understanding the ferocity of this year’s blazes – hotter, drier conditions are making the country’s fire season longer and much more dangerous.
And Australia’s climate is definitely changing. According to the country’s Bureau of Meteorology, temperatures have already risen by more than one degree
The smoke from the blazes in the southeast of the country is visible from space, and it is spreading so far that it is causing haze in New Zealand more than 1,000 miles away.The fire season in Australia is far from over, and already it is shaping up to be one of the most intense in the country’s history
“We’re in the middle of a war situation…mass evacuations, the involvement of the military, hugely exhausted firefighting campaigns, it’s difficult to explain.”
Several people remain missing, and hundreds of homes have been destroyed. The military has deployed ships and aircraft to bring supplies to towns ravaged by the fires, and to evacuate residents who were cut off by the flames.
Conditions are expected to worsen again, with hot weather that will likely intensify the fires.
Ten firefighters have reportedly been killed while fighting the fires, including several in vehicle crashes.
Many of the animals are likely to have been killed by the bushfires, although some will likely die later due to the destruction of their food and shelter
Officials have warned that the country will be under threat from fires for months.
How extensive are the fires?
About 12.35 million acres of land have burned across Australia, according to the Associated Press. By comparison, wildfires in California in 2018—which the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection says was “the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season on record” in the state—burned an area of less than 2 million acres
Bushfire risk is currently the highest in New South Wales and Victoria, the most populous states, where it is summer
Experts tell that approximately 30% of the forest in New South Wales has been burned, but that may increase to around 50% this weekend with the weather forecast.
At least 200 fires were burning in Australia as of Jan. 3.
In New South Wales, where Sydney is located, firefighters are battling more than 130 fires
Haze from the fires was impacting places as far away as New Zealand
The fires could get worse again
Although conditions have cooled slightly in Australia this week, the summer doesn’t end until the end of February, and further hot weather could exacerbate the crisis.
Bowman, the researcher in Tasmania, says that the scale of fires already burning means that when the weather heats up, fires intensify quickly.
Every time you get the weather set up, as we’re entering in the next 24 hours, the fires just explode again and you have even bigger fires and new fires and new fire fronts and new lightning strikes…it’s a diabolical ratchet.
Bowman says that there are other bushfire prone areas that may be in danger.
The door is open and we have no idea where this is going to end,” he says. “Most of Australia’s vegetation is highly flammable, the fire has plenty to go, it has the capacity to keep burning, it’s not going to run out of fuel.
It has affected the ongoing decline of rainfall and therefore impacts of the current drought that we’re experiencing, especially in southeastern Australia.
“When you have the combination of very hot, dry days, strong winds, and very dry fuel, if you get any sort of spark, you have the conditions for a very bad bushfire,” Hughes says.
As extreme wildfires burn across large swaths of Australia, scientists say we’re witnessing how global warming can push forest ecosystems past a point of no return.
More than 17 million acres
have burned in Australia over the last three months amid record heat
that has dried vegetation and pulled moisture from the land. Hundreds of millions
of animals, including a large number of koalas, are believed to have perished in the infernos. The survivors will face drastically changed habitats. Water flows and vegetation will change, and carbon emissions will rise as burning trees release carbon
and fewer living trees are left to pull CO2 out of the air and store it.
The link between global warming, forests, and wildfires is multifaceted but very clear.
Drought and loss of forests cause higher temperatures over the land and lower humidity, which, in turn, worsens wildfire conditions. And there’s no reason to think that gradual temperature rise will cause a similar gradual increase in fire risk, citing a recent study
showing that incremental warming increases fire damage exponentially by drying out fuels. Each degree of warming has a bigger effect on forest fire than did the previous degree of warming.
Some of the forests lost to the ongoing fires in Australia aren’t likely to come back anytime soon.
Human activity has also contributed to increased fire risk in other ways. Logging can dry up forests
and make the remaining trees more susceptible to fire, and the building of more roads and residential areas in the forests means there is more chance of fires igniting from power lines or cars, as well as more property damage and people at risk when fires break out.
The fires are also threatening
some of the most ancient forests on Earth, relics from 180 million years ago, when all the planet’s continents were joined in the super-continent of Gondwana. The moist Gondwana rainforests, with damp microclimates under a dense canopy, have little history of fires, but global warming is drying them out.
Even without fire, trees are dying around the world at increasing rates because of global warming.
During extreme heat events and droughts, air bubbles can form in their moisture transport systems, essentially choking them to death. Warming also increases outbreaks of tree-killing insects. And logging, as well as land-clearing fires in the Amazon, are threatening to push that critical forest ecosystem past a tipping point with global implications for carbon cycling.
The multiple studies and reports on increases in fire season length, fire size, magnitude, and intensity, as well as forest die-back events and pest outbreaks show that forest ecosystems at the very core of our life support on the planet are under severe stress, said Alistair Jump
, head of biological and environmental sciences at the University of Stirling (UK).
On our overheating planet, wildfire is now one of the most terrifying and costly of all-natural disasters.
’s catastrophic bush fires have been widely blamed on human-caused climate change, but evidence is mounting that the devastation has more to do with environmentalist policies than fossil fuel emissions.
Out-of-control blazes have killed a billion wild animals. Those remaining will struggle to survive in a scorched landscape.
The scale is unprecedented: such synchronous loss of vast areas of habitat. The ferocity of the fires, which can create their own weather, means the wildlife is at a loss to respond.
The challenge will be to work out how to protect the pockets of forest habitat that are left. We may need to be proactive and carry out controlled burns near areas that become wildlife refuges during fires to keep future fires out.
25 Octomber 2019
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