What you need to know about the Australia bushfires

Australia faced a devastating start to it’s fire season in late 2019, and things swiftly got worse before rains helped contain many of the worst fires in February 2020. The Verge will update this page with news and analyses.

What’s happened so far?

Dozens of fires erupted in New South Wales, Australia, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency in November 2019. Fires rapidly spread across all states to become some of the most devastating on record. An area about the size of South Korea, roughly 25.5 million acres, has burned. At least 33 people are dead, including at least three volunteer firefighters, and more are missing. Around 3,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged. As blazes intensified in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, thousands of people who were forced to evacuate sought shelter on beaches across New South Wales and Victoria.

Summer extends from December to February in Australia, with fire season typically peaking in late January or early February. On January 3rd, officials warned that conditions would get worse over the following few days. “It’s going to be a blast furnace,” New South Wales Transport Minister Andrew Constance said to The Sydney Morning Herald. By January 10th, another round of massive evacuations began across the hardest-hit regions of the southeast due to dangerous winds fanning the flames.

The fires in New South Wales, the state most affected, were finally declared “contained” on February 13th. “After what’s been a truly devastating fire season for both fire fighters and residents who’ve suffered through so much this season … We can really focus on helping people rebuild,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said in a video shared on Twitter. The relief came after torrential rains marked the wettest week in the region in three decades.

The smoke became another disaster. On January 1st, Australia’s capital recorded the worst pollution it’s ever seen, with an air quality index 23 times higher than what’s considered “hazardous.” Smoke in the city crept into birthing rooms, stopped MRI machines from working, and triggered respiratory distress in one elderly woman who died soon after she stepped off a plane.

The smoke reached New Zealand, 1,000 miles away, where it has created eerie scenes atop glacier-covered peaks. The plumes were so thick that a NASA satellite snapped pictures of it from space.

More than 1 billion mammals, birds, and reptiles likely lost their lives in the blazes, according to one estimate from the University of Sydney. Around 25,000 koalas were feared dead on Kangaroo Island. Eight thousand koalas, a third of all the koalas in New South Wales, are believed to have perished, and about 30 percent of the koalas’ habitat has also been wiped out. The devastation only adds to existing pressures on Australia’s unique ecosystems. The continent is home to 244 species that are not found anywhere else. The region also has the highest rate of native mammals becoming extinct over the past 200 years. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment published a list on February 11th of the 113 animal species, including the platypus, that most urgently need help following the fires.

“The potential impacts on wildlife are devastating,” Crystal Kolden, an associate professor of fire science at the University of Idaho who studied wildfires in Tasmania in 2018, tells The Verge. “There won’t be a full accounting for how bad it actually is for years.” Some ecosystems, like eucalyptus forests, are prone to fires and will come back. But Kolden points out that Australia is also home to pockets of vegetation, inhabited by species that have managed to survive for millions of years. “These really incredible remnants of, you know, the era of the dinosaurs essentially, [are] not adapted for fire and when it burns, it will be gone.”

A koala named Pete from Pappinbarra at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital on November 29th, 2019, in Port Macquarie, Australia.
Photo by Nathan Edwards / Getty Images

During the Golden Globe Awards on January 5th, celebrities, including Joaquin Phoenix, Ellen DeGeneres, Patricia Arquette, and Cate Blanchett, shared their concern about the fires. Australian native Russell Crowe skipped the awards ceremony because of the blazes (his home was damaged by the fires in November), but Jennifer Aniston delivered a message from him after he won Best Actor in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for TV. “Make no mistake. The tragedy unfolding in Australia is climate change-based,” his message said.

What does climate change have to do with it?

Firestorms are not new to Australia. It’s typically hot and dry, similar to conditions in California or the Mediterranean. Eucalyptus forests in Australia have a unique relationship to fire; the trees actually depend on fire to release their seeds.

This season’s fires, however, are unprecedented. It’s a much earlier fire season, and the fires have gotten very big, very early, Kolden tells The Verge. Weather conditions feeding the fires are historic. Australia suffered from its hottest day on record on December 18th, reaching a national average temperature of 41.9 degrees Celsius (107.4 degrees Fahrenheit). Last month was Australia’s hottest December, and 2019 was the country’s hottest and driest year on record. Extreme heat and drought create more tinder to fuel fires. The heightened intensity and frequency of wildfires fall in line with scientists’ predictions for a warming world.

Firefighters Continue To Battle Bushfires As Catastrophic Fire Danger Warning Is Issued In NSW

Photo by David Gray / Getty Images

“The reality is, this is a function of climate change — this extreme heat, these extreme conditions that are so volatile and are producing the types of intensity and early season burning that we do not normally see in Australia,” Kolden says.

Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison is facing heat for his own inaction on climate change and defense of coal. Morrison’s administration faced criticism for thwarting global efforts to complete a rulebook for implementing the Paris agreement during a United Nations climate conference in Madrid in December. Morrison also got backlash for taking a vacation to Hawaii — which he ended up cutting short — in the midst of the fires.

“I think there is a feeling among environmental scientists and ecologists in Australia that we’ve been frozen out of the debate, certainly out of policymaking. I think it’s now time to bring the scientists back into the tent to look at what is likely to be happening over the next few decades,” Chris Dickman, the ecologist at the University of Sydney who estimated the death toll of animals in the flames, told Public Radio International’s The World. “We’re probably looking at what climate change may look like for other parts of the world in the first stages in Australia at the moment,” Dickman said.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Sydney, Melbourne, and other cities across Australia on January 10th. Demonstrators called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and action on climate change, and they shut down some roads while demanding that Prime Minister Morrison leave office.

How are the fires being fought?

Australia relies heavily on volunteer firefighters, especially in the rural bush where much of the fires are burning. Its fire response relies more heavily on community efforts compared to places like the United States that have centralized fire management systems. The current crisis has led to some policy changes. As volunteers missed work to fight local blazes, Morrison announced in December that they would be compensated. To bolster the local forces, the Australian military sent in its own aircraft and vessels and 3,000 army reservists. Help is also coming from abroad: the United States and Canada have sent firefighters to battle the blazes. Malaysia is preparing to send help, too.

Experts told The Verge that under the extreme conditions, there was not much more that firefighters could do until there was enough rainfall to stop the blazes or the fires ran out of fuel and burned themselves out. “It’s not humanly possible to prevent [these fires] or put them out,” Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology based in Oregon, tells The Verge. “We have put so much of our strategy for living in fire environments all on firefighters, all on suppression, reacting to blazes. And, you know, now we are facing conditions, given climate change in particular, we can’t do that.”

Correction January 6th, 11:08AM ET: A previous version of the article stated that the temperature reached 40.9 degrees Celsius, which was the record for the national average temperature set on December 17th. That record was broken on December 18th when the national average temperature reached 41.9 degrees Celsius.