Australia is being ravaged by the worst wildfires seen in decades, with large swathes of the country devastated since the fire season began late July. A total of 24 people have died nationwide, and in the state of New South Wales alone, more than 1,300 houses have been destroyed.
State and federal authorities are struggling to contain the massive blazes, even with firefighting assistance from other countries, including the United States. All this has been exacerbated by persistent heat and drought, and many point to climate change as a factor making natural disasters go from bad to worse.
Each year there is a fire season during the Australian summer, with hot, dry weather making it easy for blazes to start and spread. Natural causes are to blame most of the time, like lightning strikes in drought-affected forests.
According to state agency, Victoria Emergency, Dry lightning was responsible for starting a number of fires in Victoria’s East Gippsland region in late December, which then traveled more than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) in just five hours.
Humans can also be to blame, because, in November, the NSW Rural Fire Service arrested a 19-year-old volunteer member on suspicion of arson, charging him with seven counts of deliberately setting fires over a six-week period.
The country’s Bureau of Meteorology said in December that last spring was the driest on record. Meanwhile, a heatwave in December broke the record for highest nationwide average temperature, with some places sweltering under temperatures well above 40 degrees Celsius (about 113-120 degrees Fahrenheit).
Strong winds have also made the fires and smoke spread more rapidly, and have led to fatalities — a 28-year-old volunteer firefighter died in NSW in December after his truck rolled over in high winds.
Experts say climate change has worsened the scope and impact of natural disasters like fires and floods — weather conditions are growing more extreme, and for years, the fires have been starting earlier in the season and spreading with greater intensity. Several high-ranking emergency service officials, including the former commissioner of the NSW Fire and Rescue Department, sent letters to Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2019 warning of the impact of the climate crisis on Australia.
In response, Morrison emphasized a commitment to reduce carbon emissions — but also said he would stick to “sensible” policies, and that there wasn’t “a single policy, whether it be climate or otherwise,” that can completely protect against the fires.
Entire towns have been engulfed in flames, and residents across several states have lost their homes. The heaviest structural damage occurred in NSW, the country’s most populated state, where close to 1,300 homes have been destroyed and over 440 damaged.
In total, more than 5.9 million hectares (14.7 million acres) have been burned across Australia’s six states — an area larger than the countries of Belgium and Haiti combined. The worst-affected state is NSW, with 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) burned.
With help from CNN.