Raging Wildfires Have Prompted a State of Emergency in Australia—Again

This is the third time that such a declaration has been made since the conflagrations began last year

Fires blaze through the night in Australia
Thousands were evacuated this week as bushfires continue to blaze across East Gippsland in Australia. Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

As catastrophic wildfires continue to plague Australia, officials have declared a seven-day state of emergency in New South Wales, the country’s most populous state. It is, according to Linda Givetash and Caroline Radnofsky of NBC News, the third time that such a declaration has been made since the fires began in November.

The emergency declaration grants “extraordinary powers” to Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, among which are coordinating government resources, closing roads, pulling down infrastructure at risk of collapse and taking possession of property in order to combat fires, explains Stuart Marsh of Australia’s 9News. A state of disaster has been declared in Victoria, Australia’s second-most populous state, allowing officials to authorize evacuations, reports Jamie Tarabay of the New York Times.

These measures come as the country braces for particularly bad conditions on Saturday, when scorching temperatures and strong winds are expected to exacerbate an already-dire situation. Eight people died over the past week as flames swept across Australia’s Pacific coast, bringing the death toll to at least 17. Another 17 people are missing in Victoria, according to the Guardian’s Ben Smee and Luke Henriques-Gomes. Nearly 10 million acres—an area larger than Belgium—have been set ablaze with more than 1,000 houses lost in the flames. An estimated 480 million animals have been affected in the ongoing fires, as University of Sydney ecologist Chris Dickman tells Abi Moustafa of 7News Sydney.

"Approximately 480 million have been affected in New South Wales," Dickman explains. "That's not to say that the 480 million have all died as a consequence of the fires because some things are going to be mobile—birds will fly away and come back. Some reptiles, like lizards, would perhaps go underground."

Some 150 fires were burning in New South Wales and Victoria as of Thursday afternoon, and officials have cautioned that they won’t be able to bring the blazes under control before conditions get worse.

“It's going to be a blast furnace,” Andrew Constance, the transport minister of New South Wales, tells Nick Bonyhady and Alexandra Smith of the Sydney Morning Herald.

“Leave zones” have been declared across a vast stretch of territory along New South Wales’ South Coast, leading to choked traffic conditions as people tried to flee. In Victoria, some 4,000 people were stranded in the town of Mallacoota after fires ripped through the area on New Year’s Eve, cutting off road access. On Australian Navy ship arrived Thursday to deliver food, water and medical supplies, and to evacuate people who wish to leave. The evacuation process is due to start on Friday morning, Tarabay of the Times reports, and the trip to a safe port is expected to take 17 hours.

Effects of the raging fires have extended beyond Australia, with drifting smoke and ash causing glaciers in New Zealand to turn brown.

The conflagrations are being fuelled by hot, dry and windy conditions. Australia has been suffering from a prolonged drought, and January through November of last year were the second driest period on record since 1902, report NBC’s Givetash and Caroline Radnofsky. Average rainfall has largely been down across the country since 2017. In December, the nation experienced its hottest day on record, with the national average climbing to a high of 105.6 Farhenheit.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has minimized the role of climate change in driving the current catastrophe, and it is true that wildfires have long been a part of Australia’s natural history. But experts say that the nature of the country’s bushfires is changing—and the links to climate change are clear.

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, attributing this phenomenon in part to shifting global temperatures. Experts have also pointed out that flames are affecting regions not previously susceptible to wildfires, like rainforests and wet eucalypt forests.

The Climate Council, an independent Australian non-profit, attributes the country’s extreme weather and virulent bushfires to “greenhouse gas pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, like coal, oil and gas, and land clearing.” The group calls for the implementation of a “national policy to drive down greenhouse gas pollution from fossil fuels across all sectors”—but for now, experts say there is little they can do but let the flames run their course.

“We have no capacity to contain these fires,” says Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers, according to the Guardian’s Smee and Henriques-Gomes. “[T]he fires are going to do what they are going to do.”