Australia wildfires: the extent, severity and consequences of an environmental tragedy

The list of human and animal victims of the Australia wildfires keeps growing – one species might already have gone extinct – as the smoke even reaches South America.

Pyro-cumulonimbi block out the sun as an orange light shrouds the landscape in a surreal glow. The incinerated carcasses of koalas and kangaroos lie motionless. Entire towns have been burned to the ground. It may not be the apocalypse, but it’s not far off. The wildfires started over four months ago and Australia has been burning like a match since then. The fires have killed dozens of people and millions of animals, carbonising entire forests and ejecting millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The situation doesn’t look like it will improve any time soon. In fact, bushfire season is far from over and temperatures, which have already reached historic highs, are expected to grow and feed the flames further. 15 million hectares of land could potentially be affected.

Woodland in flames near Sydney
The fires have burned over 10 per cent of national park territories in New South Wales, including 20 per cent of the Blue Mountains reserve © Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Record-breaking flames

The fires – triggered mostly by lightning – have been raging since last September. They’ve burned through approximately nine million hectares of land, an area over twice the size of Belgium. “Only four times in the last fifty years has the affceted area in New South Wales surpassed a million hectares, and at the moment the level of the second-worst year (3.5 million hectares in 1974) has been surpassed three times over,” explains Giorgio Vacchiano, researcher in forestry management and planning at Milan University. The flames have destroyed vast wooded areas around Sydney, including national parks and conservation areas such as the Blue Mountains, home to protected flora and fauna.

Smoke from the wildfires has travelled thousands of kilometres: in New Zealand it has caused a discolouration of glaciers, turning them yellow and thus accelerating their melting, and it has even reached South America. In Australia, the air in many cities has become unbreathable. Last week in the capital Canberra, located inland, the air quality was recorded as the worst in the world, while Sydney has seen a 10 per cent rise in hospitalisations due to clouds of smoke and high levels of particulates.

Wildfires in Australia firefighters new south wales
Firefighters struggle against the strong winds trying to protect homes from fire near the city of Nowra, in New South Wales © Saaed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

Australia wildfires, how many people have died

Since the wildfires started, 26 victims, including three volunteer firefighters, have been confirmed, while four people remain missing in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. Over 1,500 homes have been destroyed, 900 in the former state alone, which has been the worst hit, with 50 wildfires still burning at the moment.

The town of Balmoral, south-west of Sydney, has almost been completely destroyed by a fire. Thousands of people have been evacuated and the military has had to intervene to provide food, water and fuel to the worst-hit cities, isolated by the flames.

Australian man standing in front of the ruins of his property
On 18 December temperature highs in Australia reached an average of 41.9 degrees Centigrade, peaking at 48 degrees © Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

A catastrophe for biodiversity

An ecologist at the University of Sydney tried to estimate the number of animals that have died in the fires, based on habitat loss calculations. The estimated figure came in at around 487.5 million deaths, affecting birds, reptiles and mammals. This catastrophic number might even be a gross underestimation: according to WWF Australia, over a billion animals have lost their lives either directly or indirectly because of the fires.

These figures are especially grievous considering the special nature of Australian fauna, rich in unique creatures whose evolutionary path has been distinct from the rest of the world given that they inhabit the island-continent. In fact, 87 per cent of species here are endemic. The best-known animal victims of the wildfires have been koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus), whose population has suffered a drastic – and perhaps irreversible – decline.

Read more: Koalas are functionally extinct

Other species, less iconic and well-known but no less precious, could be wiped off the face of the Earth forever by the wildfires. The Anthochaera phrygia, for example, is a bird classified as being critically endangered on the IUCN’s Red List: only 250-400 specimens survive in the wild. Approximately 80 per cent of its nesting couples live(d) in the Blue Mountains, whose forests are among the worst-affected by the flames. There’s also the Assa darlingtoni, a tiny species of frog with sophisticated parenting behaviour that populates the ancient Gondwana rainforests and needs specific humidity conditions to survive. The Wollemi pine (Wollemia nobilis) is another example of an at-risk species.

Wildfires in Australia koala Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park
A koala wounded by the flames in Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park © Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

However, the Australian bush and the species that populate it have evolved to coexist with the flamesVacchiano points out. “This type of vegetation was born to burn. The Australian climate has been very arid in the last 100 million years, and bushfires caused by lightning are so frequent that they have forced plants to evolve to survive them in the best way possible: by allowing themselves to burn. In fact, while fire destroys existing vegetation, it also creates space for plants to reproduce and regenerate. However, dry conditions have been so extreme that even traditionally more humid forest ecosystems, rarely affected by wildfires, have been engulfed by flames. Animals are also aware of the danger and know how to respond to it: many won’t find ideal conditions, but many others will actually find ones more congenial to them”.

The first species to (possibly) go extinct because of the fires

Over a third of Kangaroo Island, off the southern coast of Australia, is home to nature reserves rich in protected fauna. This island has also been hit by violent fires that have killed two people and thousands of animals. According to the authorities, about 25,000 koalas, half of its population, have lost their lives. Before this tragedy, it was thought that the island was a sort of insurance policy for the survival of these marsupials because the koalas there are the only ones that remain unaffected by chlamydia (Chlamydophila pecorum), a bacterial infection similar to HIV.

The island is (or was) also home to a small endemic marsupial called Sminthopsis aitkeni. This mammal, similar to a mouse, might be the first species to have gone extinct because of the Australian bushfires. The rare subspecies, of which 300 specimens had been recorded, only lives on the western part of the island, now completely destroyed by the flames. According to the NGO Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, the species’ entire habitat has been burned. As soon as the flames die down, researchers aim to try to find surviving animals and raise them in captivity to avert the risk of total extinction.

The Australian government keeps denying climate change

In an alarmingly vicious cycle, wildfires – favoured by the unusual weather conditions caused by climate change – are actually exacerbating the ongoing climate crisis. In fact, the flames have caused the emission of over 250 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to almost half of Australia’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, its government continues denying the connection between climate change and the bushfires that are ravaging the country, showing no intention of improving its inadequate environmental policies.

Facebook page CrowdForest reminds us that “Australia spends about 1,000 dollars per person a year in coal subsidies, exporting coal worth double the emissions that it produces internally, and its decarbonisation commitments are compatible with a 3-degree increase in global temperatures”. The Australian Prime Minister, the conservative Scott Morrison, flew to Hawaii for a holiday right in the middle of the crisis and has declared that his government won’t strengthen policies to fight climate change.

Firemen try to control the blaze in the woods around Sydney
The full ecological consequences of the wildfires aren’t yet known, and will only be understood in full once the flames stop burning © Sam Mooy/Getty Images

Smoke reaches South America

In trying to comprehend the enormity of the Australian wildfires, at least in part, it’s worth noting that smoke from the fires has travelled over 12,000 kilometres. Clouds of smoke have blown all the way to Chile and Argentina according to reports by the countries’ meteorological agencies on the 6th of January. According to Brazilian weather institute Metsul, smoke could also reach Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state.

The fires aren’t just a fatality

As if the extraordinarily hot climate and drought that has ravaged some areas of Australia for almost three years weren’t enough, arsonists are behind some of the fires, although to a lesser extent than originally reported. Australian police has dismissed claims that 183 people have been arrested for this reason: the number doesn’t refer only to arrests, but includes suspected arsonists and covers the whole of 2019, not just this fire season.

Wildfires in Australia 2019 hottest year
2019 was the hottest and driest year in Australia since records began in 1900, a situation conducive to the emergence and propagation of the fires © Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Police in Victoria has also made clear that there isn’t any evidence to suggest that the devastating bushfires that have affected the state are connected to arson. The inflated number of arrests has been used to minimise the connection between particularly large and destructive fires and climate change. British daily The Guardian has reported that, according to preliminary research by the University of Queensland, bots and trolls have been involved in a misinformation Twitter campaign around arson-related fires. Though manmade fires remain a troublesome issue in Australia, the consensus among scientific institutions recognises the overarching role of anthropogenic global warming in this unusual and horrifying fire season.

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