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Deadly wildfires in Australia: What you need to know

Australia is currently seeing the worst wildfires in decades, with blazes tearing through bushland, wooded areas and national parks. The southeastern state of New South Wales has been hardest hit by the fires. Homes in the suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney have also been damaged. Smoke from the fires has reached New Zealand.

The largest blazes have been burning for months and show no signs of stopping.

Fire season in Australia

Every year in Australia there is a fire season in which hot, dry weather makes it easy for bushfires to start and spread. The blazes may be sparked by natural causes, such as lightning strikes, or human activity.

Since early November, nearly 200 people have been arrested in the state of New South Wales for fire-related offenses. 24 have been charged with deliberately setting fires. Others are charged with discarding lit cigarettes on the ground or failing to comply with state fire bans.

Human activity leading to bushfires in Australia is nothing new. What makes the 2019-20 fire season different is that typical weather patterns have been intensified by climate change.

Climate change

Australia is simultaneously seeing record high temperatures and prolonged drought conditions.

The Murray-Darling Basin, which is an area spanning most of southeastern Australia where the wildfires have been most intense, is currently in the most severe drought since record keeping began 120 years ago.

Additionally, 2019 was the hottest year on record for Australia, with average temperatures reaching 1.52 degrees Celsius above the long-term average, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. In the southeastern part of the country, temperatures were 1.95 degrees Celsius above the long-term average.

The numbers

  • Australia’s wildfires have burned over 12 million acres, according to the Associated Press. For comparison, the 2018 California wildfires burned less than 2 million acres.
  • At least 25 people nationwide have been killed in the blazes.
  • 2,000 homes have been destroyed.
  • 70 of the more than 135 fires burning across New South Wales were not contained as of Monday.
  • The ecological toll of the fires is believed to be catastrophic. Professor Charles Dickman at the University of Sydney estimates that nearly 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles have been affected by the fires.

What is being done?

Australian authorities have been working to contain the blazes for months. The states of Victoria and New South Wales are under states of emergency, which grants significant resources for battling the fires.

More than 2,000 firefighters are working on the ground, with more support coming in from the U.S., Canada and New Zealand.

Australia’s prime minister on Saturday announced he would commit 20 million Australian dollars ($14 million) to lease firefighting aircraft from overseas.

Additionally, several organizations are collecting funds to go towards victim relief. These include the Australian Red Cross, Salvation Army Australia, NSW Rural Fire Service, and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Organizations collecting funds for wildlife relief include the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, RSPCA New South Wales, the Australian Koala Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund, and WIRES.


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