The story of a burning bush is usually associated with the Old Testament and not with the Australian outback. However, the bushfires in Australia seem more like something out of the apocalypse. News reports tell of destruction, loss of human life, blood-red skies, and disaster.
Since the bushfires started in September 2019, at least 24 million acres of Australia have gone up in smoke.
To put the damage of Australia’s bushfires into perspective, here are some facts we already know about the destructive fires:
- The size of destruction is larger than countries such as South Korea, Greenland, or Scotland
- Temperatures in the country have reached record temperatures of nearly 41°C (105.8°F)
- It is feared that 1 billion animals—some of which are unique to Australia—have died
- These are the worst fires to affect Australia in living memory
Of course, bushfires—also called wildfires—in Australia are nothing new. Even some of the native ecosystems in Australia rely on bushfires for reproduction. However, in the past few years, bushfires in Australia have become more frequent, devastating, and have had a more significant impact on human life.
The Bushfires – What We Know So Far
In 2019 and 2020, the worst bush fires were recorded in territories such as New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria. However, fires also affected many areas in Queensland, South Australia, and Western Australia. Out-of-control fires didn’t even leave the island of Tasmania un-scorched.
After the intense, dry conditions that led up to the bushfires, the start of January 2020 saw some respite. Cooler weather and rains helped to make fighting the fires much more manageable. However, with the hottest months of the year traditionally being February and March, residents are bracing themselves for more fires.
What Caused the Bushfires in Australia?
One of the most frequently asked questions is, what caused the bushfires in Australia? Are climate change and global warming to blame? Or, it this just a one-off phenomenon?
The answer to the exact cause of the Australian bushfires in 2019 is a complex one. For example, Australia’s indigenous inhabitants have used fires to regenerate the land for thousands of years. Also, bushfire management is nothing new.
Of course, fires can start in several ways—dry conditions, a lack of rain, strong winds, high temperatures and, human error—can all start devastating fires. The typical summer conditions in Australia mean that small fires can quickly become massive blazing infernos.
Where does climate change fit into all of this? According to the Climate Council, Australia is experiencing longer bushfire seasons and record-breaking temperatures than ever before. Although there is a political debate on climate change, most experts agree that changes in the climate exacerbate the frequency, intensity, and length of bushfires.
An example of global warming is the fact that in 2019, Australia experienced average temperatures 15°C above average.
There is also another worrying aspect of these large, uncontrollable fires. Bushfires release greenhouse gasses—carbon dioxide—into the atmosphere. Some experts predict that it will take over 100 years to absorb back the 350 metric tons of CO2 there were released into the atmosphere during the 2019 bushfires.
Why are the Fires So Bad?
If bushfires have always been a part of Australia’s ecosystem for thousands of years, why were the 2019/2020 fires so bad?
Several factors combined, causing these fires to be the worst in living memory. There were:
- Drought. In 2019, Australia experienced one of its worst droughts in history. The lack of rainfall left the soil and vegetation tinder-dry and highly flammable.
- High temperatures. December 2019 was one of the hottest months in Australia with a heatwave and temperatures over 40°C (104°F).
- Strong winds. Fierce winds have fanned the flames of Australia’s bushfires. The strong winds have caused the fires to burn more intensely and spread quicker over a greater distance.
- Worsening global weather conditions. Natural disasters are happening more frequently in many countries, and experts say that climate change has exacerbated their impact.
The Effect of Bushfires on Animals
The University of Sydney reports that the estimated number of animals killed by the bushfires is over 1 billion. Unfortunately, the effect of the bushfires on animals will also continue long after the fires have been extinguished.
For example, Professor Dickman from the University of Sidney says that animals flee or hide underground to survive bushfires. However, they often return to scorched environments that are unable to support them. Also, if animals relocate to other unaffected areas, they usually find it impossible to compete with species already living there.
Another impact of the bushfires is the effect on ecosystems caused by the rotting carcasses of dead animals. Experts are worried that there are not enough scavengers—dingoes, eagles, and goannas—to get rid of the carcasses. The decaying dead animals can cause dangerous pathogens that flies carry for great distances. Also, the decaying matter can get into the ecosystem causing unknown problems.
Will koalas go extinct?
Australia is home to many unique species, the most famous being the kangaroo and koala. Koalas are classified as “vulnerable to extinction” — a term which means there are becoming endangered. National Geographic reported in 2019, that koala populations need help to prevent a further decline in their numbers.
The Effect of Bushfires on Ordinary People
Bushfires have had a disastrous effect on the lives of many Australians, many of whom have never been affected by bushfires in the past.
At least 26 people have lost their lives in 2019/2020 Australian bushfires, and over 2,000 homes have been razed to the ground.
News reports tell of people fleeing their homes as fires suddenly change direction, communities stranded on beaches ready to take shelter in the ocean, and people getting treated for smoke inhalation.
Smoke can reach far greater distances than the fire does. NBC News reported that smoke from Australia has already drifted as far as South America. Unfortunately, doctors also predict that the effects of inhaling smoke could affect Australians for years to come.
As Australia braces itself for what is to come in the coming months, donations pour in from all over the world to help relief efforts. Some well-known celebrities and business people have already pledged six and seven-figure amounts to assist. Also, ordinary people who have been touched by the plight of Australians and animals during the bushfires have helped.