Since June of last year, fires have burned across New South Wales (NSW), prompting the government of Australia to declare a national state of emergency. While bushfires are common during the spring and summer, the NSW fire service regards these as the “worst in memory.”
The fires were exacerbated by an extended drought accompanied by record-high temperatures. In December 2019, a record 107.4ºF (41.9ºC) was measured 24 hours after the previous record of 106.4ºF (40.1ºC). Over 46 million acres of land have burned, including farms, private property, and buildings. In comparison, California’s 2018 fires – the largest in the state’s history – burned only 1.9 million acres.
Almost 6,000 buildings in NSW have been destroyed and 29 people have been killed. Lachlan Penfold ’22 said, “The fires came pretty close to my farm – they were about ten kilometers away a few weeks ago, but it’s all under control now. A lot of my friends and people I know who live in the countryside are going through major droughts and other struggles as a consequence [of] the fires.”
NASA satellite imagery shows the fires and smoke from space. Social media has been flooded with pictures of orange skies filled with smog. The cloud is so large that it has traveled from Australia to New Zealand. Areas such as Christchurch are covered in dangerously polluted air. Glaciers, which are usually covered in white snow, are tinted yellow with ash.
There are ongoing efforts to halt the spread of the fires, but to little avail. Ten thousand firefighters are still working daily from morning to night. Many volunteers have also joined the force. Dozens of countries, including Canada and the United States, have sent firefighters and military aircraft to support the efforts.
The fires have also killed over one billion animals, including many rare and endangered animals, such as the black rock wallaby. In an effort to assist native animals, helicopters have dropped carrots and other foods.
The fires have also created local and international political turmoil. Many have linked the devastation to poor management by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, citing his vacation to Hawaii at the peak of the fires as evidence of his lack of concern.
Morrison has tried to downplay the connection between climate change and the fires, but to many across the world, these fires serve as a reminder of the effects of global warming. Most scientists, including those at NASA, believe that climate change has a role in the problem of fires worldwide.
Sydney recently saw numerous protests urging the government to respond to climate change. Toby Atwill ’22 said, “Having lived in parts of the country that are currently being decimated by the bushfires, I am shocked by [their] scale and severity. Whilst my family and friends are all safe, some have had to flee their homes and evacuate with the very real possibility that when they return, their properties may be totally destroyed.”
As the fires continue to blaze through Australia, charitable efforts seek to provide relief to its people. The Australian government has pledged to rebuild and compensate volunteers as soon as the fires are contained.
Donations to support the effort can be made to organizations such as the Red Cross, WWF, and the Australian Salvation Army.