Australia had a devastating start to the fire season in late 2019 and it quickly got worse before rains helped curb many of the worst fires in February 2020. The Verge will update this page with news and analysis.
What has happened so far?
Dozens of fires broke out in New South Wales, Australia, causing the government to declare a state of emergency in November 2019. Fires spread quickly across all states and became the most devastating ever recorded. An area the size of South Korea, approximately 25.5 million acres, has burned down. At least 33 people are dead, including at least three volunteer firefighters, and more are missing. Around 3,000 houses were destroyed or damaged. As the flames intensified in the days leading up to New Year's Eve, thousands of people forced to evacuate sought shelter on the beaches in New South Wales and Victoria.
Summer in Australia extends from December to February, with the fire season usually peaking in late January or early February. On January 3, officials warned that conditions would deteriorate in the days that followed. "It's going to be a blast furnace," New South Wales Secretary of Transportation Andrew Constance told The Sydney Morning Herald. On January 10th, another round of massive evacuations began in the most affected regions of the Southeast as dangerous winds ignited the flames.
The fires in New South Wales, the hardest hit state, were finally declared "contained" on February 13. "After a really devastating fire season for firefighters and local residents who have suffered so much this season … we can really focus on helping people rebuild," said Rob Rogers, deputy commissioner for rural firefighters in New South Wales , shared in a video on Twitter. Relief came after heavy rains marked the wettest week in the region for three decades.
For the first time this season, all bush and grass fires in NSW are included in a very traumatic, exhausting and fearful bush fire season.
Firefighters, emergency services and communities have done a lot of work to get to this point. #nswrfs pic.twitter.com/RhqmcYhJ1j
– NSW RFS (@NSWRFS), February 13, 2020
The smoke became another catastrophe. On January 1st, the Australian capital recorded the worst pollution ever seen. The air quality index was 23 times higher than that classified as "dangerous". Smoke in the city crept into birth rooms, stopped the work of MRI machines, and in a shortness of breath triggered older woman who died shortly after getting off a plane.
The smoke reached New Zealand, 1,000 miles away, where it created eerie scenes on glacier-covered peaks. The feathers were so thick that a NASA satellite took pictures of them from space.
According to an estimate by the University of Sydney, more than 1 billion mammals, birds and reptiles in the flames have probably lost their lives. Around 25,000 koalas were feared dead on Kangaroo Island. Eight thousand koalas, a third of all koalas in New South Wales, are believed to have died, and approximately 30 percent of the koalas' habitat has also been wiped out. The devastation only increases the pressure on Australia's unique ecosystems. There are 244 species on the continent that cannot be found anywhere else. The region also has the highest rate of native mammals that have become extinct in the past 200 years. The Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Environment published a list of the 113 animal species, including the platypus, that are most in need of help after the fires on 11 February.
"The potential impact on wildlife is devastating," Crystal Kolden, associate professor of fire science at the University of Idaho, who studied forest fires in Tasmania in 2018, told The Verge. "There will be no complete explanation of how bad it has been for years." Some ecosystems, such as eucalyptus forests, are prone to fire and will return. However, Kolden points out that Australia is also home to vegetation pockets that are home to species that have survived for millions of years. "These truly incredible remains of the dinosaur era are essentially unsuitable for fire, and if they burn, they will be gone."
A koala named Pete from Pappinbarra at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital on November 29, 2019 in Port Macquarie, Australia.
Photo by Nathan Edwards / Getty Images
During the January 5 Golden Globe Awards, celebrities such as Joaquin Phoenix, Ellen DeGeneres, Patricia Arquette and Cate Blanchett shared their concerns about the fires. Australian-born Russell Crowe skipped the award ceremony because of the flames (his house was damaged by the November fire), but Jennifer Aniston sent a message from him after being recognized as the best actor in a limited series or TV movie was. "Make no mistake. The tragedy in Australia is based on climate change," he said.
What does climate change have to do with it?
Firestorms are nothing new in Australia. It is usually hot and dry, similar to California or the Mediterranean. Eucalyptus forests in Australia have a unique relationship with fire; The trees actually rely on fire to release their seeds.
However, the fires this season are unprecedented. It's a much earlier fire season, and the fires grew very early, says Kolden The Verge. The weather conditions that feed the fires are historical. Australia suffered from its hottest day since its inception on December 18, reaching an average national temperature of 41.9 degrees Celsius. The last month was Australia's hottest December and 2019 was the hottest and driest year in the country. Extreme heat and dryness create more scale for fuel fires. The increased intensity and frequency of forest fires corresponds to the scientists' predictions for a warming world.
Photo by David Gray / Getty Images
"The reality is that this is a function of climate change – this extreme heat, these extreme conditions that are so volatile and create the types of intensity and burning in the early season that we don't normally see in Australia," says Kolden.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison is exposed to the heat because of his own inaction against climate change and the defense of coal. The Morrison government has been criticized for frustrating global efforts to finalize a set of rules implementing the Paris Agreement at a United Nations climate conference in Madrid in December. Morrison also got a backlash from vacationing in the middle of the fires in Hawaii – which he ended up stopping.
"This is a function of climate change."
"I think environmental scientists and ecologists in Australia feel that we have been frozen out of the debate, certainly for political reasons." I think it is now time to get the scientists back into the tent to see what is likely to happen in the next few decades, ”said Chris Dickman, an ecologist at the University of Sydney, estimating the number of animal deaths in the flames. told Public Radio International The World. "We are currently looking into what climate change could look like in the early stages of Australia in other parts of the world," said Dickman.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Sydney, Melbourne and other cities in Australia on January 10th. Demonstrators have called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and climate change measures. They blocked some streets and asked Prime Minister Morrison to resign.
How are the fires fought?
Australia relies heavily on volunteer firefighters, especially in the rural bush, where much of the fire burns. Fire response depends more on community efforts than in places like the United States, where fire management systems are centralized. The current crisis has led to some political changes. In December, when volunteers missed out on local flames, Morrison announced that they would be compensated. To strengthen the local armed forces, the Australian military sent its own planes and ships, as well as 3,000 Army reservists. Aid also comes from abroad: The United States and Canada have sent firefighters to fight the flames. Malaysia is also preparing to send help.
"It is not humanly possible."
Experts told The Verge that under the extreme conditions, there wasn't much more firefighters could do until there was enough rain to stop the flames or the fires ran out of fuel and burned themselves. "It is humanly impossible to prevent or extinguish these fires," Timothy Ingalsbee, Firefighters United's general manager for security, ethics and ecology in Oregon, told The Verge. “We have put so much of our strategy for living in fire environments on firefighters, suppression and reaction to flames. And you know, now we are faced with conditions, especially in the face of climate change, we cannot. "
Correction January 6, 11:08 am ET: An earlier version of the article stated that the temperature reached 40.9 degrees Celsius. This was the record for the national average temperature set on December 17th. This record was broken on December 18 when the national average temperature reached 41.9 degrees Celsius.