Forest fires in Australia: this is what you need to know about deadly fires

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.

The flames have swept the bushes, forested areas and national parks such as the Blue Mountains. Some of Australia’s largest cities have also been affected, including Melbourne and Sydney, where fires have damaged homes in the outer suburbs and thick columns of smoke have covered the urban center. In early December, the smoke was so bad in Sydney that the air quality measured 11 times the “dangerous” level.
The mist of forest fires is seen on Bondi Beach in Sydney on December 10, 2019.

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.

Most of the time it is due to natural causes, such as lightning in forests affected by drought. The dry beam was responsible for starting a series of fires in the East Gippsland region of Victoria at the end of December, which then traveled more than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) in just five hours, according to the state agency Victoria Emergency.
Humans can also be the culprits. New South Wales police have accused at least 24 people of deliberately starting forest fires and taking legal action against 183 people for fire-related crimes since November, according to a police statement.

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.

Australia suffocates on its hottest day across the country as forest fires rise, and temperatures are likely to rise even more
Australia is experiencing one of its worst droughts in decades: the country’s Meteorology Office said in December that last spring was the driest recorded. Meanwhile, a heat wave in December broke the record for the highest average temperature across the country, with some places suffocating under temperatures well above 40 degrees Celsius (around 113-120 degrees Fahrenheit).

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.

Experts say that climate change has worsened the scope and impact of natural disasters such as fires and floods: climatic conditions are increasingly extreme and, for years, fires began at the beginning of the season and spread more intensely .
A protest of climate action in Sydney, Australia, on January 10, 2020.

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?

Bushfire survivor Melinda Plesman examines the remains of her destroyed property in Nymboida, NSW.

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.

To put this in perspective, the 2019 Amazon jungle fires burned more than 7 million hectares (approximately 17.5 million acres), according to Brazilian officials. In California, which is known for its deadly forest fires, just over 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) were burned in 2019, and about 404,680 hectares (1 million acres) in 2018.
A total of 28 people in Australia have died this fire season, including several volunteer firefighters.
The remains of burned buildings in the city of Cobargo, New South Wales, on December 31, 2019.

How many animals have died?

About half a billion animals have been affected by fires in New South Wales, with millions probably dead, and that is a conservative estimate. According to environmentalists at the University of Sydney, the total number of animals affected could reach one billion across the country.

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.

Nearly a third of the koalas in New South Wales may have died in the fires, and a third of their habitat has been destroyed, said Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley.

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?

Firefighters fight forest fires around the city of Nowra, New South Wales, on December 31, 2019.

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 Australian Defense Force is helping in firefighting efforts across the country.
The federal government has also sent military assistance such as army personnel, air force planes and navy cruisers to fight fires, evacuate, search and rescue, and cleanup efforts.

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?

Donations can be made to various organizations that work for the relief and recovery of victims, including the Australian Red Cross, the Australian Salvation Army, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service and the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Australia.
It can also help the devastated population of animals through wildlife rescue and treatment groups such as WIRES, Port Macquarie Koala Hospital and Currumbin Wildlife Hospital.

An earlier version of this story erroneously represented the size of the fires of the 2019 Amazon rainforest. This has been corrected.


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