Australia is in the midst of one of the most extreme fire seasons in its history, with close to 11m hectares burnt and more than 120 fires still raging across the country. Rain storms have brought relief in recent days, quelling some of the blazes, but the fire season is far from over.
Why does this fire season stand out?
An area the size of Iceland has been destroyed by wildfires in the past few months, the most damaging in Australia’s recorded history and more than five times the area cleared by the California wildfires in 2018. At least 29 people have been killed by the Australian blazes, including four firefighters.
Dozens more are missing and thousands of homes have been burnt to the ground. “In terms of building destruction, the raw numbers are close to the most significant [ever],” said Andrew Gissing, senior executive at Risk Frontiers, the risk management company.
Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, has been particularly badly affected. Some fires have spanned across hundreds of thousands of hectares, destroying forests and farmland. The largest fire burnt more than 500,000 hectares.
A state of emergency was declared by New South Wales state government in mid-November, giving more powers to the emergency services to evacuate people from their homes. By January 21, more than 2,300 homes had been destroyed and a further 900 had been damaged, according to the state fire service. In neighbouring Victoria, close to 390 properties have been damaged.
“The duration of the fires, the intensity of the fires, and the sheer scale of the area affected is unprecedented,” said Paul de Ornellas, chief wildlife adviser for the World Wide Fund for Nature. “And it is potentially ongoing.”
Are the worst of the fires over?
Australia’s fire season typically runs from October to March, with the southern states of Victoria and Tasmania tending to be worst-hit towards the end of that period. The Black Saturday wildfires that hit Victoria in February 2009 killed 173 people and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.
“The worst of the heat and the dryness might still be yet to come,” explained Mr Gissing. “We usually see the peak of Victoria’s season happen in February. And we are not even there yet.”
The data show that Australia’s wildfires are destroying more homes, more frequently. Some believe this is because a greater number of residences are being built in fire-prone areas. “You need to take into account a big increase in exposure,” Mr Gissing said.
The fires have also had a devastating effect on wildlife. One estimate by Chris Dickman, ecology professor at the University of Sydney, put the number of animals killed by the fires this season at 1.25bn. “It is a monstrous event in terms of geography and the number of individual animals affected,” Prof Dickman told National Public Radio in America.
There is no fire without smoke
In the city of Melbourne, the amount of ash in the air peaked on January 14, when the average level of small particle matter, measured by PM2.5, was 158μg/m³ — nearly 30 per cent higher than the levels recorded in New Delhi and Shanghai. This is equivalent to smoking seven cigarettes a day.
In Sydney, locals were exposed to record high concentrations of air pollution at the start of the year. Yet this was dwarfed by the amount recorded in Australia’s capital, Canberra, where on January 2 the average daily PM2.5 level reached 576μg/m³, which is more than double the threshold considered hazardous for humans.
The smoke has been carried by high-altitude wind as far as South America, Africa and the Indian Ocean, according to Nasa, whose astronauts have shared images of its reach on Twitter.
Economic consequences are already being felt
The extent of the economic impact will not be known for months, but early estimates for some of the most affected sectors are alarming. By mid-January, nearly 14,000 insurance claims had been made for fire-related losses this season. The total claimed was $1.34bn, according to the Insurance Council of Australia, nearly double the figure reported just a week earlier.
These claims underestimate the extent of the damage, according to Sarah Hunter, chief Australian economist at Oxford Economics, not only because some areas have just become accessible, “but also because individuals are generally under-insured”.
“The fires will reduce agricultural output, may curb construction activity due to unhealthy air quality and tourism may also take a hit,” said Marcel Thieliant, senior economist at Capital Economics.
Reconstruction activity will provide a boost to the affected regions after the fires have subsided, but economists have accelerated their downward revisions for this years’ growth forecast. The latest forecast for GDP growth this year is 2.2 per cent, from 2.5 per cent in September.
Warmer climate points to increasing risks ahead
Last year was the hottest and driest in Australia’s recorded history, according to the country’s meteorology bureau. In Sydney, the highest reading to date — of 48.9C — was recorded this month. A record high of 43.6C was also reached at Canberra airport, breaking a previous record from 1968.
A hot and dry climate, matched with strong winds, make for the ideal conditions for the spread of wildfires. With droughts and heatwaves becoming more frequent, there is a growing risk that such fires could happen again.
The UK’s weather monitoring body said this month that climate change was the main contributor to what had been the warmest decade in Earth’s recorded history.
An annotation has been removed from the first chart in this article since initial publication to clarify that all data in the chart relate to the state of New South Wales and not the whole of Australia