Australia’s Wildfire Hell Continues

People forced to retreat to beaches in New South Wales, Australia Image: 9News

To say that Australia’s massive wildfires have been unprecedented is an understatement. The world has watched in disbelief at images of people and animals fleeing for their lives as more than 200 fires have burned roughly 12 million acres. As CBS News reported, the fires have forced more than 100,000 residents and tourists to flee in one of the largest evacuations in Australia’s history. At least 19 people have died while Navy ships helped evacuate hundreds of people from beaches along the country’s southeastern coast.

The Scope: How do Australia’s fires compare to fires we’ve seen in Western US states? TIME put it in perspective:

  • About 12.35 million acres of land have burned across Australia, according to the Associated Press.
  • By comparison, wildfires in California in 2018—which the California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection says was “the deadliest and most destructive wildfire season on record” in the state—burned an area of less than 2 million acres.

Unprecedented Damage: Due to hot and dry weather (along with lightning strikes) fires have sparked in every Australian state, but New South Wales has been hit the hardest. As CNN explained, the blazes have not only torn through bushland, wooded areas, and national parks like the Blue Mountains but some of Australia’s largest cities have also been affected, including Melbourne and Sydney.

  • Fires there have damaged homes in the outer suburbs and thick plumes of smoke have blanketed the urban center.
  • Earlier in December, the smoke was so bad in Sydney that air quality measured 11 times the “hazardous” level.

Why This Matters: While brush fires do regularly occur in Australia, these fires are not normal but may become the new normal with a rapidly warming planet. Additionally, Australia has been in the midst of a 3-year drought, and that drought is due in part to a typical weather pattern called the Indian Ocean Dipole. The Dipole is expected to increase in frequency as a result of climate change and along with rising average temperatures and staggeringly low humidity, the risk of brush fires in Australia drastically increases. These fires can’t specifically be attributed to climate change but their jarring images are a reminder that we’re driving our planet to a breaking point.

Go Deeper: At the Golden Globes last night Australian actress Nicole Kidman broke down with emotion over the fires and actor Russell Crowe emphasized the need for climate action in his acceptance speech.

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