Australia is ravaged by the worst wildfires seen in decades, with the country’s large swaths devastated since the fire season started at the end of July.
At least 29 people have died up till now, and more than 3,100 homes have been destroyed or damaged in New South Wales (NSW) alone. The government is finding it difficult to contain the fires and various agencies have stepped in to help. Even countries like The USA have sent help, but the fires have overwhelmed everyone.
All this has been compounded by extreme heat and drought, and many point to climate change as a cause that makes natural disasters worse and worse.
The geographical location of the fires
There have been fires in every Australian state, but New South Wales has been hit hardest.
Blazes have ripped through bushland, wooded 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 plumes of smoke have smothered the city center. Earlier in December, the pollution in Sydney was so severe that the air quality was 11 times the “hazardous” level.
The fires range in area from small blazes— isolated houses or part of a community— to large infernos covering entire hectares of land. Some start and are contained in a matter of days, but the biggest flames have been burning for months. More than 90 fires are still burning in NSW alone.
Cause of fires
Every year during the Australian summer there is a fire season, with hot, dry weather making it easy for blazes to start and spread.
Natural causes, including lightning strikes in drought-affected areas, are most often to blame. Frequent dry lightning started a number of fires in Victoria’s East Gippsland region at the end of December 2019, which then traveled more than 25 kilometers (12.4 miles) in just a few hours, according to State Agency Victoria Emergency.
People too can be blamed. NSW police have charged at least 25 people with deliberately starting bushfires, and since November, according to a police statement, they have taken legal action against 182 people for fire-related crimes.
Damage to property
Entire towns were engulfed in flames, and residents across multiple states lost their homes. The heaviest structural damage occurred in NSW, the most populated state in the country, where 1,588 homes were destroyed and more than 650 injured. In total, over 7.2 million hectares (17.8 million acres) were burnt across Australia’s six states — an area larger than the combined countries of Belgium and Denmark. The worst affected state is NSW, burning more than 4.9 million ha (12.8 million acres).
Loss to fauna
NSW estimates comprise birds, snakes, and mammals including bats. It also takes into insects and frogs, so it’s almost certain the real sum will be higher, the ecologists fear.
According to Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley, nearly a third of koalas in NSW may have been killed in the fires, and a third of their habitat was lost.
These are pretty good estimates based on previous population density research — but until the fires stop there is no way for researchers to investigate just how extensive the damage is, and exactly how many animals died.
Australia is sadly only about halfway through its summer season. Normally, temperatures peak in January and February, which means that the country could be months away from finding relief.
Fires are unlikely to end completely because it is an event that occurs annually— and may get worse as the time progresses.