As the world celebrates the start of a new decade, in Australia, the pomp and fun of welcoming a new year have been overshadowed by a mega-crisis. This has been due to the country’s 2019 fire season, which has proven to be exceptionally brutal and quite a challenge to control. Only a few days into 2020 and forecasts are still pointing to worse days as the Australian forest fires are expected to continue spreading. According to the national weather forecaster, it has been predicted that the nation’s east (which has been the hardest hit) will experience drier-than-average conditions until March or later. Essentially, this means that for the next three months, a lot of effort and input is required to manage the devastating fires.
For centuries, bushfires have been an intrinsic part of the Australian natural environment, and each year, there are varied fire-seasons expected in different parts of the country. The continent’s weather patterns are the defining aspects of where it is most likely that these fires to occur. Typically, in southern Australia, the risks are higher in summer and autumn. While for New South Wales and Queensland, wildfires are likely to occur in spring and early summer. Finally, in the northern territory, most wildfires occur in winter and spring. These fires have primarily been propelled by the fact that the Australian climate is generally hot and dry, with most parts of the country having lots of vegetation cover. As such, not only is most of the country fire-prone, but bushfires are highly likely to spread too quickly.
The 2019 Australian wildfires
There was an early kick-off to the fire season in 2019 in the states of New South Wales and Queensland, where the first incidents were reported in September. Since then, there has been a series of widespread forest fires that have continued over the months into 2020. While a typical fire season in the region extends from October to March, this year’s fires not only begun earlier but were much wilder. Within a month, these wildfires had already burned more earth than the damage that has been caused in the past two years. For many people, attention was raised by the Binna Burra fire in South East Queensland that destroyed 11 homes and the historic lodge. This was the wakeup call as the fire swept through the surrounding subtropical forest (a cool and wet region) in an unprecedented way.
Since then, wildfires that have started in different parts of the region have been extreme with blazes tearing through bushland, wooded areas, and national parks. While the fires affecting various areas are varied in size, there have been massive infernos that have affected hectares of land. These huge blazes have not been easy to contain, with some burning for months while covering more acres by the day. It has become worse as some of the massive fires have merged to create an ‘out of control situation’ for the firefighters. One of the complex situations that have been a challenge to manage has been the Gospers Mountain fire that at one point ballooned to over 1.2 million acres. The sheer size of such a single massive fire is in itself too demanding to be handled in a week or two.
What is making the fires so disastrous?
2019 has been the hottest year for Australia according to government records that show the country was +1.5° warmer than average. These record-breaking temperatures saw the country experience average highs of 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit (41.9 degrees Celsius) in December. Not only was the country hot, but it was extremely dry, given the low rainfall recorded in the year. Even the annual monsoon rains that caused dangerous flooding in Queensland were behind schedule, and while it packed quite a punch, it did not last. As such, most of the country faced drought, with the vast forest covers having lots of fuel load and moisture. Therefore, immediately the fires started, they were bound to be more intense, given the underlying dryness and heat in the country.
The drought experienced in the country did not leave out the rainforest systems that are typically immune to raging fires because of the moist conditions. This has been the primary reason why areas that in the past never had to worry about Australian forest fires have equally been affected. It is not just the hot temperatures and dry conditions that have seen fires take a toll of Australia, but strong winds have aided them. The strong winds experienced in most parts of the nation have caused dangerous conditions as they have led to the quick spread of the fires. This has equally led to thick smoke that has greatly undermined the efforts by firefighters to contain the disaster. Together, these conditions have created the ultimate recipe for disaster. This has led to the worst fire season that Australia has ever had to deal with in decades.
Effects of the Australian wildfires
So far, more than 14.8 million acres have been destroyed by the Australian fires, making it shockingly huge. Compared to similar events that made international headlines recently, such as the Californian wildfires and fires in the Amazon rainforest, this is by size the largest. The New South Wales, which includes Sydney, has been the hardest hit as more than 10 million of the burned acres are in the state. Currently, the residents of Sydney and nearby towns are battling with poor air quality as the city has been engulfed by hazardous haze from the fires.
The Australian wildfires have equally led to massive destruction of properties, loss of lives, and massive human displacement. Currently, reports show that more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed, with 20 reported incidents of death (including three firefighters who have died over this period). It is not only humans who have been affected, but tens of thousands of animals have had their habitats destroyed, with a significant percentage being killed. While scientists have not yet provided official reports, it is feared that several rare animal and plant species could be completely wiped out.