Australia’s Bushfires Have Burned an Area the Size of Vermont and New Hampshire Combined

January 3, 2020
Amy Gunia

Bushfires raging across Australia have burned more than 12 million acres—an area approximately the size of the U.S. states of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. The smoke from the blazes in the southeast of the country is visible from space, and it is spreading so far that it is causing haze in New Zealand more [than] 1,000 miles away.

The fire season in Australia is far from over, and already it is shaping up to be one of the most intense in the country’s history.

“The intensity, the scale, the number, the geographical range, the fact that they’re occurring simultaneously, and the sorts of environments that are burning are all extraordinary,” David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science and the director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania, tells TIME.

“We’re in the middle of a war situation… mass evacuations, the involvement of the military, hugely exhausted firefighting campaigns, it’s difficult to explain.”

The bushfires have caused at least 19 deaths and dozens of people are missing. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed. The military has deployed ships and aircraft to bring supplies to towns ravaged by the fires, and to evacuate residents who were cut off by the flames.

Starting Saturday, conditions are expected to worsen again, with hot weather that will likely intensify the fires.

Here’s what to know about the crisis that’s unfolding in Australia.

How extensive are the fires?

About 12.35 million acres of land have burned across Australia, according to the Associated Press. By comparison, wildfires in California in 2018—which the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection says was “the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season on record” in the state—burned an area of less than 2 million acres.

A map maintained by researchers shows large areas of Australia were burned in 2019, with much of the damage in the last month.

Bushfire risk is currently the highest in New South Wales and Victoria, the most populous states, during Australia’s summer, which runs from December to February, but a state of emergency had already been declared in New South Wales in mid-November over the fires this season. In southern Australia and Tasmania, fire season continues into the fall.

Owen Price, an Associate Professor at the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfire at the University of Wollongong, tells TIME that approximately 30% of the forest in New South Wales has been burned, but that may increase to around 50% this weekend with the weather forecast.

What’s happening?

At least 200 fires were burning in Australia as of Friday. This week alone, 10 deaths have been confirmed in Victoria and New South Wales.

A fire tracker map maintained by researchers in Western Australia shows fires burning across the country, with fires raging on the southeast coast of Victoria.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews on Thursday declared a state of disaster for several areas, and authorities are calling for the evacuation of large areas of the state. Andrews said on his Twitter account that 28 residents of the state are missing.

In the resort town of Mallacoota, where earlier this week some 4,000 residents were forced to flee to the shores as winds pushed a fire through the area, the military is assisting with evacuations.

Australia’s Minister for Defense posted photos on Twitter of Mallacoota residents being evacuated.

In New South Wales, where Sydney is located, firefighters are battling more than 130 fires, according to the state’s Rural Fire Service. More than 1,300 homes have been destroyed in the state, according to New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

Authorities in the state this week declared the third state of emergency there since mid-November. The seven day state of emergency began on Friday morning.

Victoria’s Bureau of Meteorology posted pictures of hazy skies, and said that visibility at an airport in the city of Albury, on the border of New South Wales and Victoria, was as low as approximately 1,600 feet.

A map showed “very unhealthy” and “hazardous” air quality levels in parts of New South Wales, Victoria and Australia Capital Territory.

Haze from the fires was impacting places as far away as New Zealand, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. An image captured by a NASA satellite captured [a] large swath of smoke from the fires stretching across the Tasman Sea.

The fires are going to get worse

Although conditions had cooled in Australia this week, more hot weather is expected to exacerbate the crisis over the weekend. Victoria’s Bureau of Meteorology predicted “severe” and “extreme” fire danger ratings for several parts of the state due to hot temperatures and changes in the wind.

Bowman, the researcher in Tasmania, says that the scale of fires already burning means that when the weather heats up, fires intensify quickly.

“Every time you get the weather set up, as we’re entering in the next 24 hours, the fires just explode again and you have even bigger fires and new fires and new fire fronts and new [lightning] strikes… it’s a diabolical ratchet.”

New South Wales’ Rural Fire Service posted a map of current areas burned and expected spread of the fire on Saturday.

Bowman says that there are other bushfire prone areas that may be in danger.

“Here in Tasmania, the whole of the east coast could blow up. There’s a big chunk of forest around Melbourne, tall forests around Melbourne…in southwestern Australia there’s still plenty to burn,” Bowman says.

“The door is open and we have no idea where this is going to end,” he says. “Most of Australia’s vegetation is highly flammable, the fire has plenty to go, it has capacity to keep burning, it’s not going to run out of fuel.”

What role is climate change playing?

Experts say that climate change is contributing to the historically intense fire season.

“Climate change is supercharging the fires,” Lesley Hughes, a professor of biology at Macquarie University and a Climate Councillor at the Climate Council of Australia, tells TIME. “It has affected the ongoing decline of rainfall and therefore impacts of the current drought that we’re experiencing, especially in southeastern Australia” she says.

Hughes adds that climate change may also be causing more frequent and severe heatwave conditions in the country. The year 2019 was the hottest on record for Australia, with the temperature reaching approximately 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.

“When you have the combination of very hot, dry days, strong winds, and very dry fuel, if you get any sort of spark, you have the conditions for a very bad bushfire,” Hughes says.

Despite the bushfire crisis, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison has argued that there is no direct link between Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and the severity of the fires burning across the country. He has, however, acknowledged that climate change could be impacting bushfires and the length of the fire season. Australia is one of the highest per capita emitters of carbon dioxide in the world, according to Climate Analytics, an advocacy group that tracks climate data.

Hughes says that the government’s stance on climate change is hurting its ability to respond to the crisis.

“If you don’t accept the science—that’s been saying for at least 30 years that these are the sort of conditions we should be preparing for and mitigating against—then you come to a disaster like this completely unprepared.”

Political backlash

Australia’s Prime Minister has faced backlash over the crisis, both for his reluctance to link Australia’s emissions to the bushfires and for his response to the fires. Protests broke out at Morrison’s office in December, with some demonstrators demanding action on climate change, while others criticized Morrison for taking a vacation to Hawaii during the fire crisis. The Prime Minister cut short his family holiday and apologized for the timing of his trip.

Alex Oliver, Director of Research at the Sydney-based think-tank Lowy Institute, tells TIME that the Morrison government’s stance on climate change has angered some Australians who see climate change as a serious problem and want to see the government take stronger action.

On Saturday morning Morrison announced a cancellation of an economic visit to India in order to chair a National Security Committee meeting, Sky News Australia reports.

On Thursday, Morrison was confronted by angry residents of a bushfire-ravaged town who cursed at him and insulted him on a visit to the town.

Some residents refused to shake his hand, others made obscene gestures and called him an “idiot” and worse.

Sarah Maddison, a professor of politics at the University of Melbourne, tells TIME that Morrison’s response to the situation has been “extraordinarily misjudged.”

“He seems determined to minimize the scale and impact of these fires, insisting that this is the kind of natural disaster that Australia experiences all the time,” she says.

Maddison tells TIME that bushfires have in the past often been used by Australia’s leaders to garner political support.

“They put on their Akubras [Australian hat] and they head out to the front line and they offer condolences and they get to set the narrative about… their leadership of the issue,” she says.

For Morrison, the fires appear to have had the opposite effect, she says.

“He seems to be scurrying around with his tail between his legs, so determined to avoid talking about climate policy that he’s unable to offer anything that looks like genuine compassion or empathy.”

Questions Using Close Reading and Critical Thinking

  1. The first section of an article should answer the questions “Who?”, “What?”, “When?”, and “Where?” Identify the four Ws of this article. (Note: The rest of the news article provides details on the why and/or how.)
  2. Does this article have any bias? Why or why not?
  3. What makes this fire season in Australia different from previous years?
  4. Explain how the Australian military has stepped in to help residents with the ongoing bushfires approaching their communities.
  5. How does climate change play a role in fueling the fires? Why is Australia suffering the most consequences right now?
  6. Describe how politics in Australia have affected their response to both climate change and the current bushfires.
  7. Choose one of the five themes of geography and explain how it best relates to the devastation of these fires.
  8. In your opinion, how will this season’s bushfires in Australia change the country, its ecosystem, and its economy in the years to come?

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