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Hot, dry and dangerous: Australia’s ‘catastrophic’ bushfires creep toward Sydney

ABOVE: Growing evidence Australia's wildfires connected to climate change

Unrelenting drought has turned Australia’s bushfire season into a “catastrophic” event with no clear end in sight.

Fires are burning across New South Wales amid temperatures of 35 C, driven by low humidity and winds as strong as 80 km/h.

The dangerous conditions have so far claimed three lives, destroyed more than 160 homes and wiped out nearly 4,000 square miles of forest and farmland.

READ MORE: Crews battle ‘catastrophic’ Australia wildfires amid high winds

Bushfires are an annual threat during Australia’s dry summers, but this wave of fires came early, catching many by surprise.

The speed of the fires, coupled with the consistently dry conditions, has created a situation firefighters are struggling to control.

Where are the fires? 

Australia braces for more bushfires as conditions set to worsen
Australia braces for more bushfires as conditions set to worsen

New South Wales, a coastal state, has been the hardest hit. The region is home to about six million people and located in the eastern part of the country.

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For more than a week, the state has been under a “catastrophic” state of emergency declaration, which grants the Rural Fire Service the power to control resources and other government agencies during the crisis.

The “catastrophic” designation is the highest level on Australia’s scale for fire danger. The rating tells Australians in at-risk areas that their homes cannot be defended and that fleeing is the only means of survival.

“Catastrophic is off the conventional scale,” the commissioner of the NSW rural fire services, Shane Fitzsimmons, told The Guardian.

“It’s where people die.”

In Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, photo, firefighters work on a controlled burn in Koorainghat, New South Wales state, Australia. (Darren Pateman/AAP Images via AP)
In Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, photo, firefighters work on a controlled burn in Koorainghat, New South Wales state, Australia. (Darren Pateman/AAP Images via AP)

On Tuesday alone, firefighters were grappling with 85 fires across New South Wales. Of those, 14 were considered emergencies and burning out of control, according to Rural Fire Service.

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Little relief in sight as deadly bushfires rage in Australia
Little relief in sight as deadly bushfires rage in Australia

It marks the largest number of fires in New South Wales since Friday, which saw 17 emergency fires burning, breaking a decades-old record.

In Queensland, north of New South Wales, local media reported about 65 fires burning, but there were no emergency warnings.

Smoke rises from an out-of-control bushfire near Clumber, Queensland, Australia, 08 Nov. 2019. (EPA/DAN PELED AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)
Smoke rises from an out-of-control bushfire near Clumber, Queensland, Australia, 08 Nov. 2019. (EPA/DAN PELED AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)

The threat forced officials to drop pink fire retardant and water on Sydney’s northern outskirts.

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A water-bombing aircraft drops fire retardant on a bushfire in Harrington, Australia, Nov. 8, 2019. (AAP Image/Shane Chalker/via REUTERS)
A water-bombing aircraft drops fire retardant on a bushfire in Harrington, Australia, Nov. 8, 2019. (AAP Image/Shane Chalker/via REUTERS)
A car sprayed with fire retardant is seen after a bushfire in a residential area of Sydney on Nov. 12, 2019. (Photo by Saeed KHAN / AFP) (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)
A car sprayed with fire retardant is seen after a bushfire in a residential area of Sydney on Nov. 12, 2019. (Photo by Saeed KHAN / AFP) (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Fires in the state’s northeast have been particularly severe. It’s there that three deaths were reported.

The volatile situation has forced more than 600 schools and colleges across the state to close. Of those, nine had to be evacuated.

The extent of the damage inflicted so far is not yet known.

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Firefighters struggle

More than 3,000 firefighters are in the thick of the battle and nearly 80 aircraft have so far been involved in the efforts.

The army is expected to be deployed to assist in the firefighting and clean-up efforts, according to The Guardian.

“We are certainly starting to see an increase in fire activity and therefore the fire danger is increasing accordingly,” Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney on Tuesday.
“The reality is conditions will simply continue to get worse and deteriorate over the coming hours and particularly into this afternoon when the combination of the hotter temperatures, the drier atmosphere and the strengthening winds all come together to drive fire.”
A firefighter works to contain a bushfire near Taree, New South Wales, Australia, 10 Nov. 2019. (EPA/DARREN PATEMAN AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)
A firefighter works to contain a bushfire near Taree, New South Wales, Australia, 10 Nov. 2019. (EPA/DARREN PATEMAN AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)
Firefighters look at a bushfire approaching in Old Bar, New South Wales, Australia, 10 Nov. 2019. (EPA/DARREN PATEMAN AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)
Firefighters look at a bushfire approaching in Old Bar, New South Wales, Australia, 10 Nov. 2019. (EPA/DARREN PATEMAN AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)
Firefighters work to contain a bushfire along Old Bar road in Old Bar, New South Wales, Australia, 09 Nov. 2019. (EPA/DARREN PATEMAN AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)
Firefighters work to contain a bushfire along Old Bar road in Old Bar, New South Wales, Australia, 09 Nov. 2019. (EPA/DARREN PATEMAN AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)
Fire and Rescue NSW firefighters conduct property protection as a bushfire burns close to homes on Railway Parade in Woodford NSW, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image via AP)
Fire and Rescue NSW firefighters conduct property protection as a bushfire burns close to homes on Railway Parade in Woodford NSW, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (Dan Himbrechts/AAP Image via AP)
NSW Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue NSW personnel conduct property protection as a bushfire burns in Woodford, New South Wales (NSW), Australia, 08 Nov. 2019. (EPA/DAN HIMBRECHTS AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)
NSW Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue NSW personnel conduct property protection as a bushfire burns in Woodford, New South Wales (NSW), Australia, 08 Nov. 2019. (EPA/DAN HIMBRECHTS AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)
Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, Lyn and Peter Iverson watch their burnt out office and shed on their property following a bushfire at Half Chain road, Koorainghat, New South Wales state. (Darren Pateman/AAP Images via AP)
Monday, Nov. 11, 2019, Lyn and Peter Iverson watch their burnt out office and shed on their property following a bushfire at Half Chain road, Koorainghat, New South Wales state. (Darren Pateman/AAP Images via AP)

Weather 

After days of tinder-dry temperatures and blustery winds, relief could sweep through New South Wales and Queensland mid-week.

Temperatures are expected to drop slightly, but it will likely be brief, as meteorologists anticipate another blast of hot air will threaten any progress made by the weekend.

“Dry conditions will persist across Australia over the next few days. The one positive when it comes to the wildfires in NSW is that temperatures have dropped and won’t be quite as high as they have been in recent days,” said Global News Meteorologist Ross Hull.

“However, after the passage of the cold front that has brought the cooler conditions, there will be some gusty winds at times — which can still fan those flames.”

November may not be the rainiest month of the year for NSW, but the city has so far recorded only 15.4 mm, a far cry from the 84-mm monthly average.

READ MORE: It’s not just the Amazon — wildfires have been burning around the world

“There could be some isolated showers in NSW by the weekend but that also comes with the chance of thunderstorms and that lightning potential could spark new fires,” he added.

A “combination of factors” have led to the “catastrophic” danger in Australia, World Meteorological Organization spokeswoman Clare Nullis told reporters in Geneva this week.

She cited low soil moisture, heat, wind direction and wind speed as components of the cocktail bolstering the bushfires.

Many meteorologists have blamed climate change for the growing length of fire weather season.

New South Wales has endured its driest 34-month period on record, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. On top of that, Australia has experienced its second-warmest January-to-October period compared to records dating back 110 years.

Pointing fingers

Climate change contributing to Australia’s wildfires emergency says World Meteorological Organization
Climate change contributing to Australia’s wildfires emergency says World Meteorological Organization

The bushfires have reignited calls for Australia’s conservative government to address climate change.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to answer questions about the role of climate change since the fires broke out, only saying: “My only thoughts today are with those who have lost their lives and their families.”

Morrison’s deputy, Michael McCormack, has suggested that now was not the time to talk climate change.

“What people need now is a little bit of sensitivity, understanding and real assistance. They need help; they need shelter,” he said.

“They don’t need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time.”

NSW Rural Fire Service firefighters conduct property protection as a bushfire burns close to homes on Railway Parade in Woodford, New South Wales (NSW), Australia, 08 November 2019. (EPA/DAN HIMBRECHTS AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)
NSW Rural Fire Service firefighters conduct property protection as a bushfire burns close to homes on Railway Parade in Woodford, New South Wales (NSW), Australia, 08 November 2019. (EPA/DAN HIMBRECHTS AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND OUT)

The comment has been met with backlash from politicians in affected zones, including the mayor of Glen Innes, located just north of Sydney.

“The government says this isn’t the time to talk about climate change — I completely disagree, we should have been talking about this years ago,” said Carol Sparks.

“We are overwhelmed with the intensity of this fire and climate change is responsible.”

Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter, an industry of which Morrison has been a stalwart supporter. Under the United Nations Paris Climate Change Agreement, Australia has set a target of 26 to 28 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030. The UN reported last year that Australia was not on track to meet its target.

While it’s difficult to squarely attribute climate change to a specific, ongoing event, experts point to the country’s gradually rising temperatures as an example of changing levels.

“We do know that the average temperature in Australia is now running about 1 C above the long-term average,”  Dr, Richard Thornton, the chief executive of the Bushfires & Natural Hazards Co-operative Research Centre, told the BBC.

— With files from the Associated Press and Reuters
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