In November, dozens of fires broke out in New South Wales, Australia, quickly spreading across the continent and becoming the worst wildfire ever,media outlet The Verge reported. The current wildfires are about twice the size of Belgium, about 15 million acres. At least 18 people have died, including at least three volunteer firefighters, and many more are missing. More than a thousand houses were destroyed and hundreds damaged. Thousands of people forced to evacuate are seeking shelter on beaches in New South Wales and Victoria on New Year’s Eve. More than 100 fires are still burning.
Haze has become another disaster. On January 1st the Australian capital experienced the worst pollution on record, with an air quality index 23 times higher than the so-called “dangerous” level. Smoke from the city spread to the delivery room, causing the MRI machine to stop working and causing respiratory distress in an elderly woman who died shortly after disembarking.
Smoke from Australian wildfires has even reached New Zealand, 1,000 miles away, creating a gruesome sight on a glacier-covered mountain top.
Despite fires in all six Australian states, NEW SOUTH WALES WAS THE WORST HIT. According to the University of Sydney, nearly a billion animals (including mammals, birds and reptiles) died in the fires in New South Wales alone, and 8,000 koalas (one-third of all koalas in NSW) died. About 30 percent of koala habitats have also been burned. Damage will only increase existing pressure on Australia’s unique ecosystem. The continent is home to 244 unique species, including koalas. In the past 200 years, the region has the highest rate of extinction of native mammals.
“The potential impact on wildlife is devastating,” Crystal Kolden, an associate professor of fire science at the University of Idaho, told The Verge. He studied wildfires in Tasmania in 2018. “It doesn’t fully explain what’s happened over the years. “Some ecosystems, such as the eucalyptus forest, are prone to fire and re-burn. But Kolden points out that Australia is home to many vegetation, with species planted for millions of years. “These really incredible remnants, basically the dinosaur era, are not adapted to fire, and when it burns, it will disappear. “
Summer in Australia runs from December to February, and the fire season usually peaks in late January or early February, so disasters are expected to continue. On January 3rd officials warned that the situation would worsen in the coming days. “It’s going to be a blast furnace,” NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance told the Sydney Morning Herald.
What is the link between climate change and wildfires?
Australia has a hot and dry summer climate, similar to california or the Mediterranean. Australia’s eucalyptus forest has a unique connection to fire. However, the fire is unprecedented. ‘It was earlier in the fire, and the fire had become very rapid,’ Kolden told The Verge. The weather conditions that caused the fire are historic. Australia had its hottest day on record on December 18, with temperatures reaching 40.9 degrees Celsius (105.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Extreme heat and drought have created more flames. The increase in wildfire intensity and frequency is in line with scientists’ predictions of world warming.
“The reality is that this is a function of climate change – this extreme heat, these extreme conditions are so volatile, and produce the type of intensity and early-season burning that we don’t normally see in Australia,” Kolden said.
How will the fire be put out?
Australia relies heavily on volunteer firefighters, especially in the fire-burning rural jungles. Their fire response is more dependent on community efforts than in areas like the United States, where there are centralized fire management systems. The current crisis has led to some policy changes. Morrison announced in December that compensation would be paid as volunteers struggled with local fires and were unable to work as usual. To strengthen the local army, the Australian military sent its own aircraft and ships. In addition, the United States and Canada have sent firefighters to help put out the fire.
Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of the Oregon Federation of Firefighters responsible for safety, ethics and ecology, told The Verge: “It is not possible to (stop) these fires or put them out. We’ve given most of our strategy to firefighters for the lives of firefighters. And you know, we’re facing conditions now, especially given climate change, and we can’t do that. “