Media Production Editor
Plumes of smoke haze over vermilion skies, ash particles fall from above, and the death toll continues to rise as widespread bushfires devastate regions of Australia during its 2019-20 fire season. An estimated 29 people and one billion animals have been killed thus far with approximations putting the amount of land burned at nearly 40 thousand square miles. About half of the land burned is in the state of New South Wales, with almost five million hectares destroyed, though the fires affect every region of the country.
The season officially began in October of 2019 with the first fires ignited by sparks or lightning. However, months of prolonged drought and the country’s driest Spring on record, as well as hotter temperatures, low humidity and rainfall, and strong winds – what scientists call “fire weather” – primed Australia for what is expected to be some of the most intense fires in its history. Many of the fires began due to natural causes. In East Gippsland, a region of Victoria, dry lightning caused several outbreaks, some of which traveled more than 12 miles in under six hours.
The fires have destroyed more than 3,000 homes, with thousands of people displaced and forced to evacuate. In some towns, like Mallacoota in East Gippsland, residents were stranded on the beach or took shelter on boats in the ocean before being forced to evacuate once again.
The blazes have afflicted both towns and forested regions alike. Fires tore through the Blue Mountains National Park in New South Wales and outer suburbs in the nearby city of Sydney. Here, the air quality measured 11 times the hazardous level and was the equivalent of smoking 37 cigarettes in one day.
Kangaroo Island, an island off the coast of South Australia, is known for its vast wildlife and wilderness, but the fires have killed hundreds of native kangaroos, koalas, and other animals, as well as burned nearly 90 percent of the island’s timber plantations.
Australian scientists state that anywhere from 20 to 100 threatened animal species may be nearing extinction as a result of the fires. According to an analysis by University of Sydney Professor Chris Dickman, an estimated 800 million animals are affected by the fires in New South Wales alone, not including insects, bats, or frogs. Many of the animals will pass away in the fires, with the number expected to rise after the blazes subside due to the “depletion of food and shelter resources.”
Certain species, including the koala, are not expected to reach extinction status because their population is dispersed throughout the country. However, other species, including a few types of frogs and birds that live in concentrated habitats, are in danger of being wiped out if hit by the fires. Until the fires cease, researchers cannot provide accurate estimates of the damage to Australia’s wildlife populations.
Australian authorities dropped thousands of kilograms of food – mainly carrots and sweet potatoes – from planes across New South Wales on Jan. 11 to help feed the native endangered brush-tailed rock-wallaby population. Some animals burns were already too severe for responders to help them recuperate. In Mallacoota, veterinarians were forced to euthanize several kangaroos that had fled fires and taken refuge on a golf course after the animals suffered third-degree burns that were past the point of treatment.
New South Wales declared a seven-day state of emergency on Jan. 2, and Victoria announced a state of disaster soon after. In November, Queensland also declared a brief state of emergency as a result of the fires. Foreign countries like the United States, Canada, and elsewhere sent in additional firefighters to help thousands of already-employed Australian firefighters combat the blazes from the ground. In a media release on Dec. 27, the Australian Defence Force announced it would “increase its support to fire authorities” as it deployed more aircrafts, Navy cruisers, and helicopters to help with search and rescue and firefighting efforts.
Despite these recent promises of aid, Prime Minister Scott Morrison faced severe criticism earlier in the fire season for his lack of action when meeting members of affected communities, and for being on vacation in Hawaii while the bushfires intensified. He cut his vacation short to return to Australia under the scrutiny of thousands who marched to protest the government’s neglect. During his visit to Cobargo, a New South Wales town affected by the fires, one woman who had lost her home to the fires refused to shake the Prime Minister’s hand, saying to Morrison, “I’m only shaking your hand if you give more funding to RFS [the New South Wales Rural Fire Service].”
Melinda Plesman, a 35-year resident of Nymboida, New South Wales, dumped the remains of her burned home outside the Australian parliament as a form of protest. She told reporters, “I lived on 200 acres of bush so I lost my house, I lost my way of life.” She added that she now lives in a motel after losing her home to the fires.
Scientists contend that rising global temperatures affecting weather conditions can make the fires in Australia common worldwide. Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts Research at Britain’s Met Office Hadley Centre, explained that, “Temperature conditions in Australia are extreme at the moment but they are what we expect to happen on average in a world of three degrees of global warming.” Since 1910, Australia’s temperature has risen by more than one degree Celsius, and worsening drought conditions – a reality of Australia’s changing climate over the last several years – increase the likelihood of more intense fires.
Before the fires, scientists categorized the Australian environments into two categories: those that are susceptible to fires and those that do not burn. This round of fires has likely changed these classifications due to the burning of rainforests and swamps previously dried out by droughts. Forest restoration expert Sebastian Pfautsch at Western Sydney University explained, “Anybody would have said these forests don’t burn, that there’s not enough material and they are wet. Well, they did.” The fires in these habitats will likely change them forever, and it may be more than a century for certain ecosystems to fully recover if no more fire seasons of this magnitude occur. Over time, forests may turn into grasslands or open woodlands instead of regenerating due to repeated fires.
The bushfires became so intense that they even created their own weather system. The rising heat from the fires created pyrocumulonimbus clouds, which Mike Fromm, a meteorologist at the US Naval Research Laboratory, likened to a volcanic eruption. He stated that the clouds were a cross between regular thunderstorms and an “explosive heat source from the fire.” The clouds can lead to downbursts of rain as well as lightning strikes, potentially sparking new fires. A NASA study underscored the damage the fires may have internationally, and stated the “fire clouds” were caused by “unprecedented conditions that include searing heat combined with historic dryness.” In addition, the study concluded that smoke from the fires had circumnavigated the globe and returned to its place of origin in East Australia.
For now, researchers have no way of knowing the full extent of the damage caused by the fires, or even when the fires are expected to end – Australia’s fire season typically runs well into March. Though heavy rainfall and floods hitting Victoria, Queensland, and New South Wales around Jan. 10 alleviated some of the fires, officials still warn that the worst could be yet to come.
The NSW Rural Fire Service aids firefighters in New South Wales, or you can send donations to their specific funds for the families of volunteer firefighters who were killed on duty. Money can also be donated to the Victorian Bushfire Relief through its firefighting service, the Country Fire Authority.
A GoFundMe for the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital is collecting donations to rescue and treat koalas with burns, alongside installing automatic drinking stations in areas affected by fires to help wildlife and the koala population. Donations can also be made to WIRES, a wildlife nonprofit that rescues and cares for sick, injured, and orphaned native animals.
(Sources: Associated Press, BBC, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, The Guardian, Insider, NASA, National Geographic, NBC News, Prime Minister of Australia, Reuters, Time, University of Sydney)