Although bushfires are an expected and natural component of Australia’s natural environment, Sept. 2019 ushered in a period of expansive and devastating fires that have touched the majority of the continent. New South Wales, a state in the south of Australia, declared a state of emergency in November regarding the fires, according to Time magazine.
According to Geoscience Australia, bushfires often occur in warmer weather–during Australia’s summer season–and are ignited by human activity or events such as lighting strikes. The continent’s unprecedented heat wave and simultaneous drought, also accompanied by strong winds, have created the uniquely grave circumstances for the 2019-2020 fires, according to the New York Times.
The BBC reports that the fires have caused 27 human deaths, destroyed thousands of homes, and killed, displaced, or injured millions of animals.
A variety of factors have contributed to the expansiveness of the fires, one among them climate change. The heat wave and drought are thought to be related to increasing temperatures in Australia.
“Scientists have long warned that a hotter, drier climate will contribute to fires becoming more frequent and more intense. Many parts of Australia have been in drought conditions, some for years, which has made it easier for the fires to spread and grow,” the BBC said.
On Dec. 18, 2019, Australia hit an unprecedented temperature of 41.9C, or about 107 degrees Fahrenheit.
“The year 2019 was the hottest on record for Australia, with the temperature reaching approximately 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above the long-term average, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology,” Time Magazine reports.
Australian drought was caused by cooling sea temperatures near Australia, yet increasing sea temperatures near the eastern African coast. As the BBC describes, this effect, the positive Indian Ocean Dipole–which naturally, periodically alternates between warmer Australian waters and cooler African waters–is exacerbated by climate change. Increased greenhouse gasses and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will increase the amount of times this natural effect causes the severe drought in Australia seen today.
However, human activity is also a culprit, as arson has also contributed to the severity of the fires. Human activity is also chalked up to accidents. ABC News identifies “grass fires” and other small acts of arson as being related to the fires, although arson is not responsible for major fires.
“However, the majority of suspected arson relates to small grass fires and rubbish bins set alight, which have inflicted negligible damage and burnt a tiny area compared with fires sparked by lightning,” ABC News said.
NPR described Australia’s relationship with arson and bushfires in an article debunking #ArsonEmergency on Jan. 10.
“While arson has historically been one of the causes of Australian wildfires, the country is facing an unprecedented bushfire disaster,” NPR said.
Social media has been crucial in spreading awareness of arson’s role in the fires.
“Queensland University of Technology researcher Timothy Graham says he identified troll and bot social media accounts that tried to shift the narrative about the fires as being the work of dozens of criminals,” NPR said, quoting Graham and his co-researcher, Tobias Keller.
“Accounts peddling #ArsonEmergency carried out activity similar to what we’ve witnessed in past disinformation campaigns, such as the coordinated behavior of Russian trolls during the 2016 US presidential election,” Graham and Keller said.
While arson and intentionally destructive human behavior are responsible for some of the fires’ origins, climate change is chief among the catalysts for the especially dangerous bushfires.
The New York Times reports that roughly 12 million acres of land have been destroyed since September, and notes that just 2 million acres of land were destroyed in the California fires of 2018 by comparison.
Firefighters, mostly volunteers, have been working to combat the fires, the New York Times said. The Australian military also became involved in delivering supplies to individuals trapped or otherwise harmed by the fires. Several firefighters were among those killed by the fires and their effects.
The New York Times describes that particularly large bushfires can cause a pattern of worsening climate conditions, making the hot and dry grasslands of Australia susceptible to even more fires.
“Bush fires can be so large and hot that they generate their own dangerous, unpredictable weather systems. These so-called firestorms can produce lightning, strong winds and even fire tornadoes,” the Times said.
Black smoke from burning vegetation–releasing more carbon into the atmosphere–has affected air quality in major cities, Sydney being among them. The smoke has also travelled as far as New Zealand.
“Residents of Sydney–Australia’s largest city–have endured smoke for weeks. The city’s air quality has exceeded ‘hazardous’ levels on several occasions. That’s led to a 10% rise in hospital admissions, say officials,” the BBC said.
Several animals affected by the fires have also been undergoing treatment by local veterinary hospitals and wildlife services. Citing a University of Sydney scientist, NBC estimates that 1 billion animals were killed by the fires. Losing their food sources and habitats in the fires, aside from physical injuries, will likely spell more wildlife deaths in the future.
For instance, the Australian Koala Foundation has labeled the species as “functionally extinct,” meaning that their species is no longer integral to their ecosystem, as described by Forbes. Starvation and death from the fires are among the causes leading to this verdict.
According to the BBC, the national government of Australia is advocating for increased firefighter funding and compensation for volunteer firefighters.
The global community has also donated to a variety of causes associated with fighting the fires and their effects on Australian homeowners and wildlife.
The New York Times lists a variety of reputable organizations that accept donations: the Australian Red Cross, GIVIT, Salvation Army Australia, St. Vincent de Paul Society and the New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service.