Nearly 100 wildfires are burning across New South Wales, Australia, scorching more than 5.3 million acres of land and shrouding Sydney beneath a potentially deadly cloak of toxic smog. The bush fires are largely enhanced by climate-change-driven drought and increasing temperatures.
As of Tuesday morning Eastern time, 96 fires were burning, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, which monitors and coordinates fire response across the state. The fires so far have burned an area 1.5 times the size of Connecticut.
A number of the most serious fires have merged into a larger fire complex with a fire front about 35 to 40 miles northwest of Sydney. Fires in the northern part of the complex are “out of control.”
According to BBC News, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service estimates this complex — which some are calling a “mega fire” — could take weeks to extinguish. When that happens largely depends on when — or rather, if — the region receives any desperately needed rain in the near future.
The complex has ballooned to 1.2 million acres in size; the largest of the blazes, known as the Gospers Mountain Fire, is currently being controlled at just under 800,000 acres.
“The massive fires are in some cases just too big to put out,” Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology tweeted. “They’re pumping out vast amounts of smoke which is filling the air, turning the sky orange.”
A smoke advisory covers the Sydney metro area; smoke is “being blown from large fires to near Warragamba Dam and the Wollombi National Park,” according to the Fire Service.
The air quality index peaked near 300 just southwest of Sydney on Tuesday morning; it was hovering near 200 downtown during the afternoon. Only values below 50 are considered safe. Conditions in Sydney were dubbed “very unhealthy,” with the concern that “everyone may experience more serious health effects.”
One writer at the Sydney Morning Herald likened the “distinctly eerie” amber skies to a scene from the movie “Blade Runner 2049” “come to life.”
Some of the soot and ash particulates have been making their way out of the sky and washing up on area beaches. Charcoal has been washing up on shorelines, raising concern that the contaminants may disrupt marine ecosystems. In addition to potentially clogging the gills of fish, the particulates could trigger an algal bloom that could rob water of the vital oxygen needed to sustain wildlife.
Already, three times more land has burned in New South Wales than throughout all of California during the hellish wildfire season of 2018. It’s more than the average annual burn across the entire United States between 1988 and 2014. And summer hasn’t even begun in Australia. Most years the fires really ramp up during December; this year, they started in October, largely tied to above-average temperatures and dry conditions.
Research shows that human-caused climate change is amplifying the fire risk and ratcheting up the heat across large parts of Australia. Wildfires are worsening with climate change because heat and drought make the landscape more prone to burning, including ecosystems previously unaccustomed to such events.
Months of rainfall deficits have left Australia parched; January through October 2019 was the second-warmest and second-driest such period on record.
According to a comprehensive 2015 federal climate report from the Australian government, the ongoing bush fires are burning in areas of the country that are likely to see an uptick in the average forest fire danger index and number of days with severe fire danger. Long-term climate trends in Australia show sharp warming and an increase in extreme-heat events.
Overall, Australia’s average annual temperature has increased by 1.8 degrees since 1910, the Australian government found, and an official 2018 report said: “There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia.”