At least 28 people They have died throughout the country, and in the state of New South Wales (NSW) alone, more than 3,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged. State and federal authorities are struggling to contain massive fires, even with the help of firefighters from other countries, including the United States.
All this has been exacerbated by persistent heat and drought, and many point to climate change as a factor that makes natural disasters go from bad to worse.
There have been fires in all Australian states, but New South Wales has been the most affected.
Fires vary in area from small flames (isolated buildings or part of a neighborhood) to massive hells that occupy entire hectares of land. Some begin and are contained within days, but the biggest fires have been burning for months. In NSW alone, more than 100 fires are still burning.
What is causing the fires?
Every year there is a fire season during the Australian summer, with a warm and dry climate that facilitates the start and spread of fires.
Why are fires so bad?
The fire season in Australia is always dangerous: the Black Saturday fires of 2009 killed 173 people in Victoria, making it the deadliest forest fire disaster in history. But conditions have been unusually severe this year, fanning the flames and making firefighting conditions particularly difficult.
The high winds also caused fires and smoke to spread more rapidly, and caused deaths: a 28-year-old volunteer firefighter died in New South Wales in December after his truck overturned with strong winds.
Several senior officials of the emergency service, including the former commissioner of the NSW Fire and Rescue Department, sent letters to Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2019 warning about the impact of the climate crisis in Australia.
In response, Morrison emphasized the commitment to reduce carbon emissions, but also said that it would adhere to “sensible” policies, and that there was “no single policy, whether climate or not,” that could completely protect against fire
What has been the damage so far?
Entire cities have been engulfed in flames, and residents of several states have lost their homes. The most serious structural damage occurred in New South Wales, the most populous state in the country, where 1,588 homes were destroyed and more than 650 were damaged.
In total, more than 7.3 million hectares (17.9 million acres) have been burned in the six states of Australia, an area larger than the countries of Belgium and Denmark combined. The most affected state is NSW, with more than 4.9 million hectares (12.1 million acres) burned.
How many animals have died?
The figures for NSW include birds, reptiles and mammals, except bats. It also excludes insects and frogs, so it is almost certain that the real sum will be greater, environmentalists said.
Some species, such as koalas, are not in immediate danger of extinction because they spread throughout the country, university ecologists said. But others who live in more specific environments with lower populations, including certain types of frogs and birds, may disappear completely if fires hit their habitats.
These are pretty good estimates based on previous research on population density, but until the fires stop, researchers have no way of assessing how extensive the damage is and exactly how many animals have died.
What is being done?
State and federal authorities have been working to fight the fire crisis for months.
In early January, Victoria declared a state of disaster and NSW declared a state of emergency, both granting extraordinary powers and additional government resources to fight fires. The state of Queensland also briefly declared a state of emergency in November.
There are more than 2,000 firefighters working on the ground in New South Wales alone, and there is more support on the way: the United States, Canada and New Zealand have sent additional firefighters to help.
The Morrison administration has also allocated billions of dollars in federal aid to help rebuild vital infrastructure such as schools and health facilities affected by fires.
The prime minister said earlier that up to $ 4,200 will go to each of the volunteer firefighters who fight the flames for more than 10 days. Other aid measures include compensated payment and additional license for volunteer firefighters.
When will the fires end?
Unfortunately, Australia is in the middle of its summer season. Normally, temperatures reach their peak in January and February, which means that the country could be months away from finding relief.
Fires are unlikely to end completely, as they occur annually, and may even get worse if recent years are a guide.
How I can help?
An earlier version of this story erroneously represented the size of the fires of the 2019 Amazon rainforest. This has been corrected.