Australian Wildfires Devastate Cities and Wildlife

Evie Ford, Scarlet Staff

Unusually severe wildfires continue to rage across the south-east coast of Australia, leaving communities devastated in its wake. Persistent heat and drought can be blamed for the intensity of the fires, but others question the role of climate change. 

Since the fires began in October, there have been at least thirty deaths nationwide, eight of whom were firefighters, and over 3,000 homes have been destroyed in North-South Wales (NSW) where the fire began. Over 2.7 million acres of land have been destroyed. 

Seasonal wildfires are to be expected in the hot, dry Australian summers, but the recent fires have been particularly brutal. Drought, dry lightning, and other natural causes are to blame for the majority of the fires, but humans are to blame for some of the fires as well. 

Twenty-four people in NSW have been charged with intentionally starting bushfires and NSW police have taken legal action against 183 people for fire-related offenses since November. 

The fires, which started in NSW, have spread to parts of Victoria and have devastated many towns in addition to impacting major cities. In December, air quality in Sydney reached hazardous levels when a blanket of smoke settled over the city. 

In early January, Victoria and NSW declared states of disaster and emergency respectively and government assistance has been sent to aid in firefighting, evacuation, search and rescue, and cleanup. Over 2,000 firefighters are working on the ground, some sent from the US, Canada, and New Zealand, in addition to military assistance from the Australian government. 

An estimated half a billion animals have died since the fires began, causing growing concern for endangered and endemic species. Already, fires on Kangaroo Island in South Australia may have decimated the remaining population of dunnarts, an endangered species of mouse-sized marsupial. 

The destruction of forest habitats does not bode well for the species that rely on niche environments. Tanya Latty, an entomologist at the University of Sydney says, “The fires could be the last straw that drives fragile populations over the brink.”

Many species that have suffered population losses due to the fires are also impacted by climate change. For some, the link between the unusually aggressive fires and hotter temperatures points to one thing. 

Some climate scientists believe that climate change could be a driver of the fires. Fire season in Australia has been starting earlier and a national average temperature increase of 1.8F could support that claim.

Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at Berkeley Earth, a climate research group, tweeted, “There are many drivers of wildfires, but it’s increasingly clear that hotter, drier conditions play a big role in making them worse.”

To fully analyze the drivers of the fires, they first must come to an end. Dr. Richard Thornton, chief executive of the Bushfires & Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Center said, “We find it very difficult in general to attribute climate change impacts to a specific event, particularly while the event is running.”

The Australian summer is only halfway through and it is unlikely that the fires will cease before the end of the season. Organizations such as the NSW Rural Fire Service, Australian Red Cross, and the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital are raising money to aid in relief and recovery for the victims of the wildfires.