More than 1 million fires in Australia detected by satellites since September

Sept. 1, 2019
Fires detected since Sept. 1
Daily detections

Australia’s ruinous fire season can be seen from space. NASA’s satellites have spotted more than a million infrared heat signatures — telltale signs of fires — across the country since the beginning of September.

The fires have largely been concentrated in the southeastern state of New South Wales, home to Sydney, where authorities last week declared a state of emergency for the third month in a row. At least 25 people have died, and the persistent burning has devastated forests, destroyed thousands of homes, and killed millions of animals — more than a billion, by one estimate.

NASA’s satellites, which identify active hotspots by measuring their infrared emissions, have spotted far more fires this season than any since 2013.

2019–20

1 million fires detected

from Sept. 1 to Jan. 8

This year’s fire

season has been

especially

active since

December.

‘18–19

750K

‘17–18

‘14–15

‘15–16

500K

‘13–14

‘16–17

250K

0

Jan.

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

2019–20

1 million fires detected

from Sept. 1 to Jan. 8

This year’s fire season

has been especially

active since December.

‘18–19

750K

‘17–18

‘14–15

‘15–16

500K

‘13–14

‘16–17

250K

0

Jan.

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

2019–20

1 million fires detected

from Sept. 1 to Jan. 8

This year’s fire season

has been especially

active since December.

‘18–19

750K

‘17–18

‘14–15

‘15–16

500K

‘13–14

‘16–17

250K

0

Jan.

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

2019–20

1 million fires detected

from Sept. 1 to Jan. 8

This year’s fire season

has been especially

active since December.

‘18–19

750K

‘17–18

‘14–15

‘15–16

500K

‘13–14

‘16–17

250K

0

Jan.

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Source: NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System

The fires have not just been more abundant than previous years. They have also affected the heart of the forest ecosystems in the country’s southeastern coast, where iconic wildlife reside. These forests help support water supplies for the most populated regions of the country, such as Sydney and Melbourne.

Though experts say human-caused climate change is making the fires last longer, grow larger and exhibit extreme fire behavior, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has resisted calls to take stronger measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In recent years, wildfires have torn across California and the Amazon, killing hundreds of people and torching millions of acres. Yet this season’s fires have covered an even larger area, about the size of West Virginia.

Australia

Sept. 1, 2019 to

Jan. 8, 2020

14.5 million

acres burned

Amazon

rainforest

2019

11.0 million

California

2018

2.0 million

California

2017

1.4 million

California

2019

0.3 million

Australia

Sept. 1, 2019 to

Jan. 8, 2020

14.5 million

acres burned

Amazon

rainforest

2019

11.0 million

California

2018

2.0 million

California

2017

1.4 million

California

2019

0.3 million

Amazon

rainforest

2019

Australia

Sept. 1, 2019 to

Jan. 8, 2020

California

2018

California

2017

California

2019

14.5 million

acres burned

11.0 million

2.0 million

1.4 million

0.3 million

Amazon

rainforest

2019

Australia

Sept. 1, 2019 to

Jan. 8, 2020

California

2018

California

2017

California

2019

14.5 million

acres burned

11.0 million

2.0 million

1.4 million

0.3 million

Amazon

rainforest

2019

Australia

Sept. 1, 2019 to

Jan. 8, 2020

California

2018

California

2017

California

2019

14.5 million

acres burned

11.0 million

2.0 million

1.4 million

0.3 million

Source: NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System; Cal Fire; WRI/Global Forest Watch. Note: Areas are estimates, based on the total area of fire alert.

The fire is causing distress beyond Australia’s borders, too. Smoke from the fires has blown eastward across the Tasman Sea, enveloping New Zealand and stretching across the Pacific Ocean to South America.

Invisible chemical compounds are traveling through the air across the Southern Hemisphere. An air pollution satellite run by the European Space Agency has detected increasing levels of carbon monoxide, which can poison people who inhale too much of it.

Brisbane

AUSTRALIA

Sydney

Auckland

Canberra

NEW ZEALAND

Melbourne

Wellington

Christchurch

500 MILES

1,000 KM

Brisbane

AUSTRALIA

Sydney

Auckland

Canberra

NEW ZEALAND

Melbourne

Wellington

Christchurch

500 MILES

1,000 KM

Brisbane

AUSTRALIA

Sydney

Auckland

Canberra

NEW ZEALAND

Melbourne

Wellington

Christchurch

500 MILES

1,000 KM

Brisbane

AUSTRALIA

Sydney

Auckland

Canberra

NEW ZEALAND

Melbourne

Wellington

Christchurch

500 MILES

1,000 KM

Brisbane

AUSTRALIA

Sydney

Auckland

Canberra

NEW ZEALAND

Melbourne

Wellington

Christchurch

500 MILES

1,000 KM

Source: Satellite imagery via the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency on Jan. 1, 2020

Harry Stevens

Harry Stevens joined The Washington Post as a graphics reporter in 2019.

John Muyskens and Aaron Steckelberg contributed graphics, and Andrew Freedman contributed reporting.

About this story

Data from NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite was downloaded from NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System. Dots representing the individual fires were grouped in two-mile blocks to reduce the file size in order to display them in your browser.

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