Australia rang in 2020 on fire, and its summer is just beginning.
While bushfires are an annual occurrence in Australia, the level of destruction the country has seen in recent months has been jarring.
There were 130 active fires in New South Wales on Monday, according to the state’s fire service. More than 15 million acres of land – or an area larger than the state of West Virginia – have burned across the country. For comparison, roughly 7 million acres were scorched in the 2019 Amazon rainforest fires. Smoke has travelled thousands of miles and can be seen from space.
The fires are particularly bad in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. A map of the fires from researchers in Western Australia shows several concentrations along the east coast of the country.
The flames have killed over 20 people. Nearly 500 million animals have died in New South Wales since September, according to University of Sydney Professor Chris Dickman, but he said that number could end up being much higher. Roughly one-third of koala populations – as well as one-third of their habitat – has been wiped out in New South Wales because of the fires, according to Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley.
Celebrities have pledged millions of dollars to help fight the fires, but researchers warn there isn’t an end in sight for the disaster.
What is causing the fires?
Australia experiences a fire season every year during the summer. Lighting strikes and other natural causes are usually to blame for starting the fires.
But this fire season is accompanied by one of Australia’s worst droughts in recent years, and a December heatwave broke the nation’s highest average temperature record.
Summer temperatures in Australia typically peak in January and February, so the country could have months of more fires.
The blazes bring back memories of the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria that killed 173 people and injured 414 more. More than a million animals died in the country’s worst ever series of bushfires that began in February that year after high winds downed power lines.
While some rain on Monday provided slight relief to the latest bushfires, hot, dry weather and winds are expected to return later this week.
What is being done to fight the blazes?
Thousands of firefighters have been working on the ground to stop the blazes.
The federal government recently sent in military assistance to help fight the fires, perform search and rescue and assist cleanup efforts.
New South Wales declared a state of emergency last month, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his administration will spend millions in disaster recovery payments to victims.
But many have criticized the federal government for its response to the blazes and its contributions to climate change.
“Our national government will have much to account for once the current crisis has passed,” former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wrote in The Guardian. “It’s been evasive, tepid, tone-deaf and, above all, too late.”
The country also relies heavily on coal-fired power and was accused of obstructing progress at a United Nations climate summit in December.
Are the bushfires related to climate change?
Climate scientist Michael Mann told ABC News Australia that several factors made worse by climate change are contributing to the fires.
“You take unprecedented heat like we’re seeing here in Australia, you combine it with unprecedented drought, which means there is a lot of fuel available for these fires, and if you put those things together, you’re going to get the sort of unprecedented bushfires that we’re seeing play out,” Mann said.
Last year was the hottest and driest year ever recorded in Australia, according to the country’s Bureau of Meteorology.
“This is just a taste of what’s to come if we don’t act,” Mann said.