In Australia, Stubborn Fires Shroud Cities In Smoke, Char Terrain And Menace Koalas

Nov 22, 2019
Originally published on November 22, 2019 2:26 pm

Fires are laying waste to wide swathes of land across Australia on scales that are tough to comprehend. In the southeastern state of New South Wales alone, where about 60 fires remain ablaze, the infernos have consumed some 4,000 square miles of land — or an area roughly eight times the size of Los Angeles.

Authorities say the fires there have left at least six people dead and around 600 homes destroyed, and New South Wales is far from being the only region racked by fire. Scores more bushfires have torn through thousands of square miles in the states of South Australia, Victoria and Queensland, where a single blaze — among many — has claimed dozens of square miles and continues to burn.

All this, and Australia still hasn't reached the peak of its traditional fire season, which usually doesn't happen until January and February.

This year has seen "the second driest January-October period on record" in Australia and the driest in more than a century, according to Andrew Watkins, senior climatologist at the country's Bureau of Meteorology.

"And unfortunately that's been compounded by the fact that we've had a very warm year to date," he added, calling the first 10 months of the year the "hottest on record."

It's no fluke: Authorities say most parts of New South Wales, where fires have raged hardest, have been suffering drought for more than two years. Coupled with high winds and temperatures, this has created what one fire official earlier this month called a "tinderbox-like conditions across much of the state."

Much of New South Wales, Australia, including the Sydney Opera House, lay under a shroud of smoke Thursday. The state remains under severe or very high fire danger warnings as more than 60 fires continue to burn within its borders.
Cassie Trotter / Getty Images

It has also made for a rather surreal — and downright unhealthy — scene in the state's biggest city, Sydney. For days, the metropolis has been draped in the cloak of a thick, smoky haze beneath a blood-red sun. And local officials have advised vulnerable residents to stay indoors whenever possible.

Outside city limits, another population has found itself in danger: koalas.

A dehydrated and injured Koala receives treatment at a koala hospital in Port Macquarie, after its rescue earlier this month from a bushfire that ravaged an area thousands of acres large.
Saeed Khan / AFP via Getty Images

Social media has been flooded with images of the distressed marsupials, battered and burned by the raging fires. The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in New South Wales put out a plea for help late last month, saying even then that hundreds of koalas likely had already died because much of their habitat in that area was claimed by fire. Earlier this year, the Australian Koala Foundation estimated that there were no more than 80,000 of the animals still in the wild.

In a bright spot, since publishing its call for donations, the hospital has received more than $1.2 million from supporters on GoFundMe — far exceeding its original $25,000 goal. But the long-term effects on the koalas' prospects are far less hopeful, according to ecologist Stephen Phillips.

"You're left with a very small group that survive," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last month, saying it was likely that up to 70% of the breeding populations in some areas had already died.

"It has certainly set the general recovery objectives of conservation back a long time, probably 10 to 20 years in some instances depending on the scale of the impact."

A firefighter walks through the haze produced by a wildfire racing through Hillville, Australia, earlier this month.
Sam Mooy / Getty Images

The widespread disaster has put pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Critics say his government hasn't done enough to address the impact of climate change on Australia, a major issue in last spring's election.

Morrison himself, despite acknowledging the effects of climate change on the fires, recently denied a link between the country's carbon emissions and the blazes charring large swathes of its landscape.

Such a response isn't likely to satisfy advocates such as the Climate Council, which published a report on the subject last week.

"For more than 20 years scientists have warned that climate change would increase the risk of extreme bushfires in Australia. These warnings have now become reality and we are seeing communities paying the price," Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie said in a statement accompanying the report.

"We need the Federal Government to urgently develop a plan that prepares Australian communities as well as health and emergency services for escalating fire danger," she added. "We must also rapidly phase out the burning of coal, oil and gas which is driving more dangerous fires."

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