Why These Australia Fires Are Like Nothing We’ve Seen Before


SYDNEY, Australia — In late October, lightning struck brittle earth on Gospers Mountain in New South Wales. The remains of trees bone dry from consecutive winters with little to no rain were ignited, and the fire quickly spread.

Three months later, it is still burning.

The Gospers Mountain fire, which became Australia’s largest “megablaze” as it grew to link several separate fires, offers a sense of the scale of the country’s most disastrous fire season ever. The blaze has burned two million acres, enveloping hinterland and wine country, and prompted a special mission to save prehistoric trees so rare that their exact location is kept secret.

That fire is now largely contained. But dozens of others are still burning in the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, some out of control, despite heavy rain in some areas in recent days. And fire season is far from over — hot and windy conditions are expected to return this week, and a month of summer remains. Here is a look at the devastation.

The amount of land burned is immense.

The modern world has never seen anything quite like these Australia fires.

About 16 million acres have burned in New South Wales and Victoria, where the crisis is centered. That’s an area about the size of West Virginia. Millions more acres have burned in other parts of the country.

What sets these blazes apart, in terms of their size, is that they are happening in populated areas. Until now, fires this large happened mostly in places like northern Canada or Siberia, where few people live and blazes burn largely uncontrolled.

“What we’re seeing in Australia, in a completely different environment, are fires that are approaching or even exceeding the magnitude of things that we only saw in the most remote forested regions in the world,” said Ross Bradstock, the director of the Center for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales.

“We’re looking at a globally significant fire season in Australia,” he added.

The numbers from Australia dwarf those from some of the most high-profile fires in recent years.

The bushfires in southeastern Australia this season have burned about eight times as much land as the 2018 fires in California, which covered nearly two million acres and were the worst in that state’s recorded history. They are also far larger than the estimates of 2.2 million acres burned by September last year in the Amazon basin, where farmers, some emboldened by the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, ignited tens of thousands of fires to clear land.

“It’s quite phenomenal and far exceeds anything you would see in the western U.S.A., which is a very fire-prone area, the southwest of Canada, the Mediterranean and parts of South America,” Dr. Bradstock said. “It’s so much bigger than anything else.”

It goes well beyond a ravaged landscape.

Australia has had deadlier fire seasons: The Black Saturday bushfires, which began in February 2009 when downed power lines ignited blazes that were spread by 60-mile-per-hour winds, killed 173 people in Victoria. The 2018 California fires killed 103 people.

But the losses Australia is experiencing in lives and property are still staggering, and not yet over. At least 29 people have been killed. Hundreds of millions of animals, by some estimates, have perished or are facing starvation or dehydration in devastated habitats. And more than 2,500 homes have been destroyed.

Smoke generated by the fires has blanketed Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, at times giving them some of the worst air in the world. The prolonged exposure of bushfire smoke to millions of people has raised fears of health effects that could last for years.

Early this month, NASA began tracking a plume of smoke from the fires that was the size of the continental United States. By Jan. 14, smoke had circumnavigated the globe, returning to eastern Australia. Along the way, it caused hazardous breathing conditions in New Zealand and discolored skies in South America.

The fires have also produced huge amounts of heat-trapping carbon emissions. A top expert on greenhouse gas emissions at Australia’s national research agency told NPR that the fires in southeastern Australia had produced as much carbon as the entire country emits from man-made sources in more than eight months of the year.

Climate change helped set the table.

Why have these fires been so vast? While Australia is normally hot and dry in the summer, climate change is bringing longer and more frequent periods of extreme heat. That makes vegetation drier and more likely to burn.

Last year was the hottest and driest year on record in Australia, and some regions have been gripped by drought for years. This season, the fires started earlier than usual — some as soon as July — and they are expected to last well into February and even March.

High temperatures, strong winds and dry forests have combined to create the conditions for powerful fires. There have even been blazes in wetlands and rainforests that have not contended with this threat before. To combat the flames, tens of thousands of firefighters, most of them volunteers, have been called on to work long days over extended periods.

Most of the fires have been caused by lightning strikes, though some people have misleadingly pointed to arson in an effort to minimize the links to climate change and the Australian government’s inaction on the issue. Others have argued that the drought is unrelated to climate change, though there is evidence that warming temperatures have been a major contributor to it, in part by pushing rain out of areas where it once fell.

“The wildfires decimating Australia, killing people, ravaging wild habitats and pushing communities and firefighters to their absolute limits are growing and coalescing into the country’s worst peacetime catastrophe precisely because of climate change,” said Paul Read, a co-director of the National Center for Research in Bushfire and Arson at Monash University in Melbourne.

Here is what the future looks like.

In Australia’s history, most bad fire seasons have coincided with the warming of an El Niño pattern. But that is not the case this time, showing how much this season stands out and the danger the country faces with more unpredictable weather patterns in the future.

While scientists have long predicted that climate change would bring longer and more intense fire seasons, the blazes were not expected to be this bad this soon, Dr. Bradstock said. Under his projections, Australia would not have seen this kind of devastation for another 40 to 50 years, he said.

“I guess I’m as shocked as anyone about what’s unfolding and, probably, like everyone else who’s involved and affected, we’ll very quickly recalibrate thinking about what we’re doing,” he said.

Recalibrating means expecting these phenomenal fires to continue to occur, particularly as Australia’s drought shows few signs of ending and temperatures are expected to continue to climb after the warmest decade on record.

“We would be extremely foolish, given all the evidence and the magnitude of this event, to just laugh it off as a one-off phenomenon,” Dr. Bradstock said. “I think we have to get ready to deal with a season like this again in the not-too-distant future.”


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