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.
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.
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.
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.
NSW Rural Fire Service/Reuters
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.
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.
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.
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.”