Energy & Environment

Five things to know about Australia’s devastating wildfires

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Australian officials have declared a new state of emergency as wildfires ravage the southeastern part of the country, tearing through koala habitats and dense neighborhoods in a region popular with foreign tourists.

Various fires have devastated the states of New South Wales and Victoria since November, tearing across more than 10 million acres, destroying more than 1,000 homes and killing at least 18 people. The state of emergency is the third in as many months.

Here are five things to know about the deadly blazes.

The fires were started by lightning

The government has blamed a lightning storm for sparking nearly 200 wildfires earlier this week.

But conditions were exacerbated by other unusual weather, including extreme winds, heat and drought.

Temperatures in Australia have been high, even for the summer, soaring above 100 degrees in some parts of the country over the weekend, just days before Australia recorded its hottest year on record.

Intense winds have not only helped the fires spread, they have led to loss of life. In New South Wales, a fire engine was flipped over by high winds, killing a 28-year-old volunteer firefighter.

A severe drought has also played a key role. Last year was the country’s driest ever.

Experts say climate change is a factor

Experts say climate change has exacerbated the fires.

“Australians need only wake up in the morning, turn on the television, read the newspaper or look out the window to see what is increasingly obvious to many – for Australia, dangerous climate change is already here,” Penn State University professor Michael Mann wrote in The Guardian this week.

His comments follow a 2018 government report saying Australia’s changing climate could result in natural hazards occurring at an “unimagined scale.”

The following year, a United Nations report said Australia was one of the developed countries most susceptible to climate change.

More recently, former New South Wales Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins wrote in a November opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald that the blazes were “burning in places and at intensities never before experienced.” He blamed “an established long-term trend driven by a warming, drying climate.” 

In an interview with The Hill, Stanford University climate professor Noah Diffenbaugh said the high temperatures are drying out vegetation, increasing the risk of wildfires.

“The long-term warming has increased the frequency and severity of severe heat across the world,” he said. “When low precipitation conditions do occur, they’re more likely to co-occur with high temperature and that combination … elevates wildfire risk. And that is exactly what we’re seeing in Australia right now.”

University of California, Los Angeles geography professor Glen MacDonald added that higher temperatures also contribute to a longer fire season.

“Particularly in Southeastern Australia, that’s definitely been part of it,” he told The Hill.

The death toll is rising

People have been killed, gone missing or been displaced because of the fires.

In this week alone, at least seven people have been reported dead, and two were reported missing, in New South Wales. In Victoria, one person died.

This season, at least 1,298 homes have been destroyed, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

Thousands of people have been evacuated from the most affected areas, while tens of thousands elsewhere were left without power.

In the coastal town of Mallacoota, some 4,000 people headed to the beach to escape the fire, only to be stranded on the shoreline after being cut off by the blaze. The government has since sent a Navy ship to carry people out in batches of about 800 at a time.

The fires show the potential to wipe out species

Australia’s koala population has been one of the hardest hit by the fires, with government officials estimating 30 percent may have died in the blazes.

“Up to 30 percent of the koalas in the region may have been killed, because up to 30 percent of their habitat has been destroyed,” Australia’s Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. last week.

But it’s not just koalas that face a serious threat. Researchers from the University of Sydney estimated some 480 million animals in New South Wales face death or displacement because of the fires.

The fires show threatened and endangered species are increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters that threaten to erase entire species.

The Puerto Rican parrot population has been hit hard by several record-breaking hurricanes, most recently Hurricane Maria in 2017. Scientists worry rising sea levels could harm oysters and mussels that rely on water that isn’t too highly salinic.

Koalas are already facing habitat destruction from growing urban areas, but the massive fires have wiped out even more territory. Experts say restoring that habitat will be key to giving the species a chance to rebound.

“Habitat protection is not just drawing a line around the minimal habitat needed for the species but making sure they can grow into areas that are protected,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These fires are just an ongoing example of what fires can do not only to people but the wildlife we care about.”

Calls for stronger government response put spotlight on coal industry

How to tackle this blaze and future ones has taken a decidedly political tone in Australia, with some calling for more action from government leaders.

One area of tension has been Australia’s reliance on coal, an industry that employs tens of thousands of people.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison last month rejected calls to impose new restrictions on the coal industry, saying, “What we won’t do is engage in reckless and job-destroying and economy-crunching target.”

Richard Di Natale, who heads the Australian Greens political party, accused Morrison of “failing in his basic duty to keep our citizens safe from harm through his inadequate response to these fires and his refusal to accept that burning climate changing fossil fuels would lead to more frequent and intense bushfires.”

He also called on Morrison to “declare a Royal Commission into the bushfire crisis.”

In November, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack called Di Natale and others “inner-city raving lunatics.”

Morrison, who heads Australia’s Liberal Party, was heckled this week when visiting a town affected by the fires.

“How come we only had four trucks to defend our town? Because our town doesn’t have a lot of money but we have hearts of gold, prime minister,” one woman reportedly said.

There have also been calls to redirect funds toward fighting the fire. A petition that garnered nearly 300,000 signatures called for money spent on New Year’s Eve fireworks to instead go toward combating the fires.

“We need to fundamentally re-think how we prepared for, finance, and respond to disasters like this,” Nicholas Aberle, the campaigns manager for Environment Victoria, said in an email to The Hill. “The existing approaches are no longer adequate to deal with the scale of bushfires Australia now faces, nor the increasing scale of fires we will face in future. For example, it is hard to rely on shared equipment across states when every state is on fire simultaneously.”

Aberle added that the country’s government “has been brought kicking and screaming to engage with the fires in any meaningful way, because they know that climate change is making bushfires worse, and they know in their heart of hearts that Australia is woefully behind the pack when it comes to cutting emissions.”

Tags Australia Climate change United Nations wildfires
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