Australia bushfires: 5 things to know about the crisis

Firefighters attempt to extinguish a bushfire at the Windsor Downs Nature Reserve, near Sydney September 10, 2013. More than 550 firefighters are working on several bush fires across New South Wales (NSW) that have left one house destroyed and six firefighters injured, according to the NSW Rural Fire Services

Nearly 15 million acres are estimated to have burned Image: REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

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  • Bush fires are raging in the states of New South Wales and Victoria
  • Blazes are also affecting Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia
  • Thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes
  • This season’s fires are more intense and widespread than previously

Scenes have been described as “apocalyptic” as Australia’s bush fires have intensified, raging across huge tracts of the country and turning daytime skies orange, red and black.

Thousands of residents and tourists have been forced to flee or take shelter as flames ravage towns in the southeastern states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria. There are also fires blazing in parts of Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia.

With some people stranded for days amid shortages of food and fuel, the military has deployed ships and aircraft to bring supplies and evacuate people from fire-devastated coastal towns.

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Fuelled by a warming, drying climate, this season’s fires are more intense and widespread than in Australia’s past.

The threat is also far from over, with exhausted firefighters – huge numbers of them volunteers – expecting to continue battling blazes in coming weeks and months.

Though the extent of the devastation isn’t yet clear, here’s a look at some astonishing facts about the bushfire crisis.

1. Area burned

Since September, the fires have killed at least 25 people, including three firefighters, left entire towns in ruins and destroyed almost 2,000 homes.

As of 2 January, more than 12 million acres had burned – an area six times the size of the 2018 California wildfires.

That estimate has since increased to nearly 15 million acres, or around twice the size of Belgium, according to some media outlets.

In NSW, the massive Gospers Mountain fire alone has burned more than 1.2 million acres, making it the biggest forest fire in Australian history.

One-third of the vineyards in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills have been lost.

The size of the Australian Wildfire
Australian fires in comparison to other similar events Image: Statista

2. Loss of wildlife

The damage to the environment and native Australian fauna is colossal.

One study estimated that 480 million animals in NSW may have been killed already, either during blazes or afterwards from lack of food, water and shelter and increased risk of predation.

This figure only includes mammals, birds and reptiles and does not consider insects, bats or frogs.

Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, has said that up to 30% of koalas on the NSW mid-north coast may have perished because “up to 30% of their habitat has been destroyed”.

She added that the true impact on threatened koala populations won’t be fully understood until the fires stop and “a proper assessment can be made”.

The National Farmers' Federation estimates more than 100,000 sheep and cattle have been lost. Army reservists have been brought in to help bury their carcasses.

A koala named Sam is given a drink of water by Country Fire Authority volunteer fire fighter Dave Tree as he rescued her after deadly fires swept through the area of Mirboo North, about 120km (75 miles) southeast of Melbourne, February 8, 2009.
CFA Fire Authority volunteer helps a koala as she emerges from a bush fire in Australia Image: REUTERS/Mark Pardew

3. Choking on smoke

For months, hazardous bush fire smoke has intermittently blanketed heavily populated areas, including Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

In Canberra on 1 January, air quality was more than 20 times above hazardous levels, leading to a shutdown of restaurants, shops, childcare centres, museums and government departments.

Plumes of smoke, dust and ash are visible from space and have even drifted thousands of kilometres east to New Zealand, causing skies to turn orange and glaciers brown.


4. CO2 emissions

The bush fires are estimated to have pumped 350 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – roughly two-thirds of Australia’s annual emissions budget in 2018-19, according to NASA data.

It may take a century or more for forests to absorb the CO2 released so far during this season’s fires, one expert told the Sydney Morning Herald.


5. Heat and drought

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed that 2019 was the hottest, driest year on record.

The country is experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades and a heatwave in December broke the record for highest nationwide average temperature of 41.9°C.

Australian rainfall for 2019
Australian rainfall for 2019 as the year becomes the hottest and driest on record Image: Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Scientists have warned that climate change increases the likelihood and intensity of wildfires. The Climate Council says a warming planet is making bush fire conditions more dangerous than they were in the past, increasing the risk to people and property.

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Related topics:
AustraliaFuture of the EnvironmentNature and Biodiversity
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