Australia is in the grip of deadly wildfires burning across the country, triggering an emotive debate about the impact of climate change in the world’s driest-inhabited continent. The unprecedented scale of the crisis, and images of terrified tourists sheltering on beaches from the infernos, has shocked many Australians.
With summer only just beginning and the nation affected by a prolonged drought, authorities fear the death toll will continue to mount as more homes and land are destroyed. Here are some key details of the crisis.
How many people have died?
Since the fire season began months ago during the southern hemisphere winter, at least 25 people have died. Among the fatalities are volunteer firefighters, including a young man who died when his 10-ton truck was flipped over in what officials have described as a “fire tornado.” Australia’s worst wildfires came in 2009 when the Black Saturday blazes left 180 people dead.
How big an area has burned?
Massive tracts of land have burned. More than 10 million hectares (25 million acres) have been destroyed — that’s an area larger than Scotland. In New South Wales state alone, more than 5 million hectares of forest and bush has been destroyed, while more than 1.2 million hectares has been burned in Victoria. The fires are so large they are generating their own weather systems and causing dry lightning strikes that in turn ignite more. One blaze northwest of Sydney, the Gospers Mountain fire, has destroyed about 512,000 hectares — about seven times the size of Singapore.
The scale of the blazes dwarfs the California wildfires in 2018, which destroyed about 1.7 million acres, and about 260,000 acres in 2019.
How many homes have been destroyed?
Some 1,800 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales alone this fire season and the tally is rising daily as the fires continue to burn and authorities assess damage. Scores of rural towns have been impacted, including the community of Balmoral about 150 kilometers southwest of Sydney, which was largely destroyed before Christmas.
What’s the economic impact?
The near-term cost is mounting. Toxic smoke shrouding Canberra has shuttered businesses and government departments and forced national carrier Qantas Airways Ltd. to cancel flights. The direct impact on the economy from the fires will be between A$2 billion and A$3.5 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30, stemming from factors such as lower tourism spending and lost agricultural production, said Terry Rawnsley, an economist at consultancy SGS Economics and Planning.
Additionally, he estimates smoke haze in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra will cost another A$200 million to A$800 million as people reduce outdoor activities and get sick. Combined, the impact equates to a drag on GDP growth of between 0.1 and 0.25 percentage point for the 2019/20 fiscal year, he said. The Insurance Council of Australia says almost 9,000 claims worth A$700 million ($481 million) have been lodged. [Editor’s Note: This article has been updated several times by Bloomberg, including at 10pm on Jan. 8].
WATCH: A thirsty koala drinks water from a cyclist amid a gripping heatwave in Australia.
Federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, says up to 30% of the koalas in the region may be dead because “up to 30% of their habitat has been destroyed”
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How has wildlife been affected?
The University of Sydney estimates that 800 million animals have been killed by the bushfires in New South Wales alone since September and one billion have died nationally. The “highly conservative figure” includes mammals, birds and reptiles killed either directly by the fires, or later due to loss of food and habitat. The fires have raised concerns in particular about koalas, with authorities saying as much as 30% of their habitat in some areas had been destroyed. Images of the marsupials drinking water from bottles after being rescued have gone viral on social media.
–With assistance from Jason Scott.
Photograph: Crews monitor fires and begin back-burns between the towns of Orbost and Lakes Entrance in east Gipplsland on Jan. 02, 2020 in Australia. The HMAS Choules docked outside of Mallacoota this morning to evacuate thousands of people stranded in the remote coastal town following fires across East Gippsland which have killed one person and destroyed dozens of properties. Photo taken by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images.
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