Australia is facing an unprecedented fires crisis, which has claimed the lives of at least 23 people. The bushfires are leaving families without homes, and decimating populations of one of Australia’s most iconic animals, the koala, as well as other species.
Each day, more evidence emerges showing that climate change is driving catastrophic bushfires, causing extraordinary human suffering and environmental devastation. Here are the facts so far.
Where in Australia is affected by fires?
Pretty much everywhere. But New South Wales has been particularly badly affected, not least because of dense populations in and around cities like Sydney and the capital Canberra.
Victoria (the southerly state where Melbourne is) has also been severely affected – those images of people waiting for sea rescue on a beach completely surrounded by fire are from the eastern tip of the state.
There are also many fires burning in Queensland (north of NSW and home to Brisbane and Cairns), and Western and South Australia.
What damage have the fires caused?
The death toll is rising (23 at last count), and dozens are still missing. In New South Wales alone, more than 1,500 homes have been lost.
News reports suggest that 10.7 million hectares of land have burned so far, an area nearly the size of England. For some perspective, the massive 2019 Amazon fires claimed 900,000 hectares, and fires in California nearly 800,000ha.
Ecologists from the University of Sydney estimate that nearly half a billion animals have been killed, including thousands of koalas, who struggle to move fast enough to escape.
Air pollution in Sydney and Brisbane has routinely been among the most harmful in the world, exacerbating respiratory problems for the young, elderly and those with pre-existing conditions like asthma.
Parts of neighbouring New Zealand, around a thousand miles away from the fires, are also being shrouded in air pollution. The country’s snow-capped glaciers appear to have turned yellow from dust and particles blown over from Australia’s bushfires.
What’s causing the fires? And doesn’t Australia always have fires?
Severe and long term drought and record-breaking heatwaves are to blame. South-eastern Australia, which is experiencing the worst of the fires, is in the grip of the worst drought on record. In 2019, many of the affected areas had their driest January to August period on record. In November, Australian meteorologists identified the first day ever that mainland Australia experienced no rain whatsoever.
Temperatures are soaring, breaking records in mid-December and continuing upwards into 2020, with many parts of the affected areas experiencing temperatures in the mid-40Cs. A Sydney suburb was the hottest place in the country on Saturday at 48.9C.
Australia has a yearly bushfire season, but this is starting earlier, lasting longer, and is more severe and unpredictable thanks to climate change. The weather conditions are also making it much harder to control fires through the usual methods.