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Scenes from Australia’s deadly bush fire crisis

Australia is in the grips of a massive wildfire disaster, intensified by record heat and drought. The military has been called in to evacuate thousands from their homes, and thick plumes of smoke have reached as far as New Zealand, more than 1,000 miles away. While bush fires are an annual occurrence in Australia and deadlier fires have occurred there, this fire season began unusually early and is projected to last for months. Australia just had its hottest and driest year on record, and December was one of the top two hottest months in the country’s history.

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Wildfires rage under plumes of smoke in Bairnsdale, Australia, on Dec. 30.

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India MacDonell, 19, wore a GoPro to capture she and her father's attempts to put out Australia's wildfire.

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Crews monitor the fires and begin back burns between the towns of Orbost and Lakes Entrance in east Gipplsland on Jan. 2.

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News photographer Matt Roberts reacts to seeing his sister's house destroyed by a bushfire in Quaama, New South Wales, on Jan. 1.

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The heat and dry conditions have turned the Australian landscape into a tinderbox. The country recorded its hottest-ever day when the nationally averaged high temperature hit 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit (41.9 Celsius). This broke the old record of 104.5 degrees (40.3 Celsius), set in January 2013. Climate studies show that human-caused climate change is raising the odds and severity of heat events globally, including in Australia. Since the fires began ravaging the country in October, 17 people have been killed and at least another 17 are still missing. More than 1,000 buildings have been lost to the flames, and at least 10.1 million acres have burned in Victoria and New South Wales alone.

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This is bigger than 9 U.S. states and equivalent to the size of Maryland. It’s also about 8.5 million acres larger than the amount of land charred during California’s 2018 fire season, which featured the state’s largest area of burned acreage in a single season.

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Property damaged by the East Gippsland fires in Sarsfield, Victoria, on Jan. 1, 2020.

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The remains of buildings sit on the ground after they were destroyed by fire in Cobargo, New South Wales, on Jan. 1.

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The remains of a car that was destroyed by bush fires sits near a home in Balmoral in Sydney on Dec. 30.

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A firefighter sprays foam retardant on a back burn ahead of a fire front in Jerrawangala, New South Wales, on Jan. 1.

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A hearse transports the coffin of late RFS volunteer Geoffrey Keaton in Buxton, New South Wales, on Jan. 2.

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Mourners stand near the coffin of late RFS volunteer Geoffrey Keaton during his funeral in Buxton, New South Wales, on Jan. 2 in this picture obtained from social media.

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In southeastern states such as Victoria and New South Wales, scorching flames have forced the closure of roads, caused cellphone outages and toppled trees. Fires burning in national forests have severely impacted iconic wildlife, including koalas, but it will take time before the damage is fully assessed. This week, Navy ships and military aircraft delivered water, food and fuel to struggling residents. Earlier this week, in the tourist seaside town of Mallacoota, the sky had turned pitch black by 9:30 a.m. People fled their homes, taking to the water for safety. Some huddled in boats, while others wore gas-masks and sheltered on the beach.

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People sought safety in New South Wales as wildfires increased.

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The sky glows red as bush fires continue to rage in Mallacoota, Victoria, on Dec. 31 in this photo obtained from social media.

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The bush fires are producing choking smoke and toxic pollution. On Wednesday, the air quality index in Canberra spiked to more than 20 times the hazardous level, the city’s worst reading on record.

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Children play at the showgrounds in Bega, New South Wales, where they are camping after being evacuated from nearby sites on Dec. 31.

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The remains of burned buildings are seen along main street in Cobargo, New South Wales, on Dec. 31.

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Many Australians have become increasingly angered by prime minister Scott Morrison’s handling of the disaster. Some say they feel abandoned by the government. Others recently lambasted the prime minister’s recent family vacation to Hawaii, a trip he embarked on and then cut short as fires tore through several states. On Thursday, the hashtag #dismisstheprimeminister was the top Twitter trend in the country as thousands took to social media to criticize Morrison as he met with the families devastated by the wildfires.

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was confronted by angry New South Wales residents on Jan. 2 over the lack of resources allocated to the wildfires.

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Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison looks at fire damage from a helicopter near Gospers Mountain, New South Wales, on Dec. 23.

Morrison’s climate policies have also proved to be a point of contention, as he is in favor of continued development of Australia’s carbon-intensive coal resources. Climate scientists have warned for years that global warming would manifest itself in Australia through heat waves and worsened bush-fire seasons. Researchers say global warming is dramatically worsening the ongoing fires and has made the record-shattering temperatures far more probable. A climate cycle in the Indian Ocean that favors drier than average weather in Australia is also contributing to the drought conditions.

A satellite image shows bush fire smoke being blown away from Australia toward New Zealand on Jan. 2.

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The Township of Orbost is under threat from the East Gippsland fires in Victoria, on Jan. 1.

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A building burns as a result of wildfires taking over Australia.

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Business owners stand in front of their destroyed shop in Cobargo, New South Wales, on Jan. 1.

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Thousands of firefighters and volunteers have joined forces to try to tackle the fires, with videos posted to social media showing vehicles surrounded by bright orange flames and clouds of smoke. Aerial tankers from the United States are being flown in to help battle the blazes. With the summer still in its early stages, Australia faces the prospect of a grueling, extended battle against fires that are so large that some are being labeled “mega fires.”

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The view from an emergency vehicle as it drove through Australia's wildfires.

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Firefighters struggle against the strong wind as they try to secure nearby houses from bush fires near Nowra, New South Wales, on Dec. 31.

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A helicopter tackles a wildfire in East Gippsland, Victoria, on Dec. 30.

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A kangaroo tries to move away from nearby bush fires at a residential property near Nowra, New South Wales, on Dec. 31.

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