Australia Is Battling ‘Catastrophic’ Bushfires

‘I’ve been in this industry for 40 years and I have not seen a scenario like this before,’ one fire official said

Smoke hangs over Sydney
More than 60 bushfires destroyed 200 homes in Australia. Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

A state of emergency has been declared across New South Wales in Australia, prompted by extreme bushfires that are predicted reach “catastrophic” levels on Tuesday, officials said.

Sixty fires are currently raging across New South Wales, the most populous state in Australia. According to the Guardian’s Ben Doherty, 40 of those fires have not yet been brought under control. More than 150 homes have burned since Friday, reports Yuliya Talmazan of NBC News, and three people have died.

Queensland, which borders New South Wales, is grappling with nearly 50 fires, and more are burning in Western and South Australia. Bone-dry conditions, coupled with high temperatures and blustery winds, have fuelled the conflagrations. According to Damien Cave of the New York Times, moisture levels of live trees and shrubs around Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, have fallen lower than they were in 2001, when the devastating “Black Christmas Fires” burned for nearly three weeks across the state. Even fire officials are shocked by the severity of the current blazes.

“I’ve got to tell you, I’ve been in this industry for 40 years and I have not seen a scenario like this before,” Rural Fire Service (RFS) Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I really haven’t.”

The situation may get worse on Tuesday, with large areas of the state facing extreme risk. “Catastrophic” is Australia’s highest fire danger designation, and the RFS advises that “leaving early is the only option” for survival. New South Wales police cautioned that fires “may start and spread so quickly there is little time for a warning, so do not wait and see. There are simply not enough fire trucks for every house. If you call for help, you may not get it.”

Some 600 schools across New South Wales closed on Tuesday because of the fire threat, and the RFS is publishing a list of safe areas where residents can take refuge. The state of emergency declaration is due to remain in place for seven days. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian noted that the declaration is a “precautionary stance,” but she advised residents to remain on high alert.

“If you're told to evacuate, please do so. If you're told to take certain actions, please do so,” Berejiklian said "And for heaven's sake, stay away from bushland tomorrow.”

The areas that have been hit hard by wildfires have been grappling with long-standing drought, according to Cave of the Times. Leaves and branches are dry, which provides ample kindling for blazes, and strong winds have exacerbated the disaster.

Though some Australian politicians have pushed back against attempts to link the current bushfires to climate change, scientists say the connections are clear. Rising temperatures dry out forest soils, and because spring is creeping early, conditions stay drier for longer. This in itself boosts wildfire risks, but temperatures spikes also make forests susceptible to infestations by insects that thrive in warm weather. These pests kill trees and brush, drying them out and making it easier for them to catch fire.

A 2018 report by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology found that there has been “a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia” since the 1950s—a phenomenon that the Bureau attributed to climate change, among other factors. The Climate Council, an independent Australian non-profit, attributes such extreme weather events to “greenhouse gas pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, like coal, oil and gas, and land clearing.”

Echoing the sentiment, Joëlle Gergis, a climate scientist and writer from the Australian National University, tells Cave that there is clearly “a human fingerprint” on the country’s rising temperatures. Shrugging off the connection between climate change and worrying weather patterns, she added, is “missing the opportunity to prepare for future life in Australia.”

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