Bushfires have been ravaging the country for months, devastating towns, rural communities and livelihoods. Here are the best ways to help.
Australia is facing an unprecedented national crisis, as bushfires tear through rural communities across the nation. Since September, at least 20 people have died and over 1,500 homes have been destroyed. Another 28 people have been confirmed missing after bushfires tore through busy tourist hubs in eastern Victoria at the turn of the new year. The scale of the threat is immense, and fires continue to burn, with authorities calling for people to evacuate their homes as the country braces for another weekend of catastrophic danger.
Australians caught up in the crisis are taking to social media and pleading for help. Entire towns have been flattened as fires snaked through bush land, across highways and up mountains. In New South Wales and Victoria, the most populous states in the country, people tried to outrun the blaze and highways were clogged with cars. In major cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne, a dense smoke has descended over busy metropolitan areas like a blanket. Some regions of the country recorded air quality measurements 20 times above the hazardous level.
The situation is grim. Australians are exhausted and frustrated by a lack of clear leadership. Many have had to flee their homes. With fire conditions getting worse in the coming days, help is required.
Here's what we know about the ongoing fires and how you can help from Australia or afar.
What caused the fires?
This is a complex question. Australia is a continent familiar with bushfires, bushfire management and the importance of fires in regenerating the land. The indigenous people who have lived across the island continent for tens of thousands of years have long known the importance of fire management and how it contributes to the health of ecosystems. Bushfires are a well-understood threat, but the fires now burning across the nation have been described as "unprecedented" in their ferocity and scale.
Fires can start in a number of ways -- from carelessly discarded cigarettes to lightning strikes and arson -- but they're fueled by a dizzying amount of factors. A lack of rain and low soil moisture can help enable small fires to grow in size, and coupled with the high temperatures and fierce winds that Australia has experienced in the last few months, these small fires can become huge infernos. In addition, with the fire season getting longer, the window to perform critical hazard reduction burns has decreased, giving fires a chance to really take hold.
The bushfire risk for the 2019 season was well known to Australian firefighting chiefs, who had been trying to meet with Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, since April, worried that a crisis was coming, but they were constantly rebuffed.
What is the connection to climate change?
A greenhouse gas cannot start a fire on its own. Bushfires aren't started by climate change, but they are exacerbated by the effects of global warming. The Climate Council, an independent, community-funded climate organization, suggests bushfire conditions are now more dangerous than they were in the past, with longer bushfire seasons, drought, drier fuels and soils and record-breaking heat. The link between bushfires and climate change has become a political football, but experts agree climate change explains the unprecedented nature of the current crisis.
Notably, Australia experienced its hottest year on record in 2019, climbing 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than the average, according to a report by the Bureau of Meteorology. Rising temperatures increase the risk of bushfire, and in November, Sydney experienced a catastrophic fire danger for the first time ever.
There is also a horrifying feedback loop that occurs when great swaths of land are ablaze, a fact the globe grappled with during the Amazon fires of 2019. Bushfires release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The gas, which makes up only a small percentage of the total gases in the atmosphere, is exceptionally good at trapping heat. In just three months, Australia's fires are estimated to have released 350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Experts warn a century or more will be needed to absorb the carbon dioxide released.