While people around the world are preparing to celebrate Christmas, one holiday wish isn’t coming true for millions of residents in Australia: wildfires continue to rage on. Despite Christmas wishes for an end to the fires and the valiant efforts of thousands of firefighters, some even from Canada and the United States, residents are waking up to more smoke, ash, and fire as wildfires burn out of control throughout the Australian continent, with some of the largest fires burning just west of downtown Sydney.
While fires rage across the continent, conditions have been especially perilous in Australia’s New South Wales, home to the city of Sydney. In new South Wales alone, there are 73 bush or grass fires burning with 28 not yet contained. More than 2,000 fire fighting personnel continue to work on this holiday, slowing the spread of fires there. Not counting an estimated 100 homes that were just lost to fire that need to be tallied, officials say 873 homes were destroyed and an additional 353 homes were damaged by fires in New South Wales in recent weeks.
While fires have not made their way into downtown Sydney, the smoke from the fires have. Depending on wind conditions, some days in the city can be choked-out with thick, dense smoke that knocks visibility down to under 2 city blocks. The smoke has been so thick in Sydney lately that smoke alarms inside of buildings have been triggered, forcing people to clear out of high rises in the city’s central business district frequently. On some days, though, the wind helps to clear smoke out of the city, allowing some blue sky to appear above the city’s landmark Opera House.
Smoke from nearby wildfires is so bad in #Sydney that visibility drops to under 2 city blocks at times from our vantage point in the central business district. The area on fire here is larger than all of the land in the Hawaiian archipelago combined. #bushfiresNSW #Australia pic.twitter.com/MhDNjt7x5k
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) December 10, 2019
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While the smoke from nearby #NSWFires was dense here days ago, a weather front has flushed most of the #wildfire smoke out of Sydney, setting the stage for a picturesque evening near the @sydneyoperahouse. While smoke is thinning here, fires continue to burn out of control west of here.
Beyond threatening fires and filling communities with unhealthy level of smoke and pollutants, the fires are also impacting agriculture and wildlife. The area being impacted by fires in eastern California is world-famous for its wines; and as those that experienced wildfire in California’s Napa Valley are aware, just the presence of smoke alone can be enough to wipe out entire grape crops.
The world famous #wine industry in #Australia‘s #HunterValley is suffering from #drought, but ash & smoke from #NSWfires are threatening to contaminate the fruit on the vines here rendering them useless. Vineyards have already tossed acres of crops due to smoke. pic.twitter.com/TGwtZzCC76
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) December 11, 2019
Australia’s famous koala also finds itself under threat of fire. While internet rumors spread that the fuzzy, cuddly animal was facing a “functional extinction”, the population is alive but is declining. The recent fires in New South Wales have claimed the lives of an estimated 350 – 1,000 koalas according to National Geographic. “We’re not going to see koalas go extinct this fast,” says Chris Johnson, professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Tasmania. “Koala populations will continue to decline because of lots of interacting reasons, but we’re not at the point where one event could take them out.”
While the politically inclined want to link the wildfires there to “climate change” or some type of “climate emergency”, the science says otherwise. Cycles of drought after periods of heavy rain, poor maintenance of forests and grasslands, and arsonists are to blame for the fires.
Returning wet conditions + poor land management strategies could create a situation for more growth of fuels on the hills and mountains outside of Sydney, like here in the #HunterValley. A future drought cycle could be more catastrophic than this 1 if something isn’t done today. pic.twitter.com/L9Tpm6WacB
— the Weatherboy (@theWeatherboy) December 12, 2019
Just months ago, record heavy rainfall drenched the region, creating an all-time record rainfall for Sydney. More dramatic heavy rain events impacted New South Wales in 2016, allowing brush to grow significantly. Each significant rain event was followed by a prolonged period of dry, which helped turn the new brush that grow into fuel and food for future fires. As was the case with numerous wildfire problems in California, a prolonged period of environmental mismanagement has created a tinderbox of unharvested timber, dead trees, and thick underbrush. Lightning-sparked fires from cyclical thunderstorms would typically “re-set” these forests and promote new healthy growth. But with people living near and inside these forest areas, the fires that naturally exist to keep forests healthy are fought away while strict environmental rules on lumber and vegetation allow fuels to grow unchecked. The result is what you see today in both Australia and California: wildfires threatening homes and people and the firefighters that try to get them under control.
While lightning is often to blame for starting wildfires, most fires in Australia appear to be intentionally set. In nearby Queensland, nearly 100 arsonists were arrested for starting fires there have have destroyed homes and consumed thousands of acres of land. Yesterday, police revealed 103 of the destructive fires that have burned Queensland since September were deliberately lit. According to Queensland police, 31 adults and 67 juveniles were arrested for deliberately setting fires.
Unfortunately for everyone in Australia dealing with the fires, the weather isn’t forecast to improve much. While the northern hemisphere welcomed the start of winter days ago, the solstice introduced the start of the summer season for the southern hemisphere. This is typically a dry and hot period over much of the continent. Intense heat has been breaking records throughout Australia in the last 2 weeks and more heat is expected as summer continues. The current weather pattern should continue to keep conditions hot and dry with no soaking rains expected until tropical cyclone season ramps up. Hurricane season for eastern Australia and New Zealand is generally November through April, with the peak occurring in late January to February. At that time, not only do conditions favor tropical cyclone development, but soaking wet rain storms too. It is still too early to tell whether Australia will finally be able to shift out of a three year drought cycle that’s impacted New South Wales and Queensland.