A state of emergency has been declared in Australia over escalating wildfires. David Elliott, the New South Wales minister for police and emergency services said the country faced what “could be the most dangerous bushfire week this nation has ever seen”.
So far, at least three people have died, 100 people have been injured and 150 homes and buildings have been destroyed by the blazes devastating swathes of the eastern coast. The situation looks set to worsen as hot and dry winds pick up in strength.
These latest fires come after Australia’s hottest summer on record, and an unusually hot and dry winter.
“In south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales, the last three years have been drier and warmer than usual,” says Richard Thornton at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre. “When preceding conditions have been like this, and the bush and grass is so dry, it doesn’t take much for a fire to get going once the wind is up.”
People living in and around Sydney, one of the most populous parts of the country, have been warned of “catastrophic” fire conditions for the first time since the classification was introduced in 2009. More than 100,000 homes in the area are within 100 metres of the bush and are at risk, according to consultancy firm Risk Frontiers.
A week-long state of emergency has been declared in New South Wales, giving emergency services the power to shut off electricity and evacuate people from their homes. Some 600 schools have been shut down over safety concerns.
Bushfires are a normal part of the Australian ecology, but experts have warned that climate change is exacerbating temperatures and lengthening droughts, prompting calls to better prepare for more extreme events to come.
But Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of New South Wales, both dodged questions on the impact of climate change, with Morrison instead offering “hope and prayers” to those affected and Berejiklian saying it was a discussion for another day.
Activists have protested to demand greater resources for fire services and action on climate change. At a rally in front of the New South Wales parliament on Tuesday, a couple whose home was destroyed by the fires on Friday poured a bucket of the charred remains out onto the pavement. “In this bucket is my house,” Aaron Crowe told reporters. “When’s the time to talk about climate change then, if I’m standing in the wreckage of my own house?”
Shane Fitzsimmons, the rural fire service commissioner for New South Wales said this was unchartered territory. “We have never seen this many fires concurrently at emergency warning level,” he told Australian public broadcaster ABC.
One million hectares of land have been devastated by fire in this fire season alone.
David Bowman at the University of Tasmania says the rate at which these bushfires keep happening “is just breathtaking”.
Australia isn’t the only place suffering these extreme weather events. Just weeks ago, hundreds of thousands of Californians were evacuated amid savage wildfires.
Many parts of the country are experiencing temperatures in the high 30s (celsius) and winds are getting up to 80 kilometres per hour in places. Air quality levels are at a hazardous level in parts of the state – at more than 300 micrograms of particulates per cubic metre. Smoke from the bushfires is even reaching New Zealand, New Caledonia and Vanuatu.