Bushfires are tearing through parts of eastern Australia, and experts say that climate change is to blame for an especially intense and destructive start to the fire season.
More than 140 fires were already raging across the eastern states of Queensland and New South Wales, the BBC reported on Thursday.
Some of the blazes have grown to a frightening size and intensity: The Washington Post reported this week that a blaze in Queensland near Blackbraes National Park have charred or threatened about 78 square miles, an area larger than all of D.C. In total, fires have burned down at least 26 homes, and more than 5,000 people have been evacuated.
Exceptionally dry conditions and strong winds threaten to sustain the fire risk in the Queensland area for weeks to come. And a blaze has already destroyed the Binna Burra Lodge, a historic rainforest ecotourism destination built in the 1930s.
“There have certainly been fires in the area before,” said the lodge chairman, Steve Noakes, according to the Guardian. “Back in the traditional owners’ time there’s evidence of fires, but certainly in the period of European history in this part of Australia, this is the most catastrophic. There’s nothing left to burn at Binna Burra, it’s all gone.”
Joëlle Gergis, a climate scientist and writer at the Australian National University, told the New York Times it was especially concerning that the area surrounding Binna Burra caught fire. Usually, fires don’t spread to a rainforest area so early in the fire season, which begins around September.
“It is devastating to see these usually cool and wet rainforests burn,” she said. “Although these remarkable rainforests have clung on since the age of the dinosaurs, searing heat and lower rainfall is starting to see these wet areas dry out for longer periods of the year, increasing bushfire risk in these precious ecosystems.”
At least one of the many fires appears to have been lit on purpose. Police charged two teens for setting a blaze at Peregian Beach in Queensland that destroyed a home, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Experts have cited climate change as a major factor for why fire season has grown longer and more intense. Since the 1970s, the number of days in Queensland with a high temperature of 95 degrees has increased by about 10-45 days per year above the historical average, according to the Australian Climate Council.
This year’s fires have even seemingly sparked a change of heart from Australia’s minister responsible for drought and natural disasters, David Littleproud, who suggested earlier this week he didn’t think climate change is man-made.
But asked about the wildfires on Thursday, Littleproud said, “I accept the science on man-made impact on climate change. Always have.”
Robert Glasser, the former head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, warned the current fires are a sign that things are bound to get even worse.
“This isn’t the new normal,” he told the Times. “We’re going to see much worse — the pace of the change is going to accelerate.”
Cover: Instagram/Queensland Fire and Emergency Services