Australian firefighters were battling hellish conditions through the night into early Saturday, as three massive bushfires merged to create the long-feared "mega-blaze" spanning more than 2,400 square miles — about half the size of Connecticut — and straddling the border of two federal states.
The extent of the devastation won’t be known until daylight, the premier of New South Wales, one of the affected states, warned.
The ferocious blaze — more than three times bigger than any fire ever recorded in California, according to NPR — was formed when three separate fires south of the Snowy Mountains connected into an enormous inferno that has unleashed treacherous wind and heat conditions.
The fires forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes across southeast Australia Friday as crisis caused by the vicious blazes continued to escalate. While seasonal fires are a regular occurrence in Australia, the current infernos, raging amid record-high temperatures and a three-year drought, have created a crisis unprecedented in scope, killing at least 26 people and more than a billion animals, and destroying nearly 3,000 houses.
Authorities issued emergency warnings in the area, following forecasts of a shift in wind overnight that fire chiefs worried could fan the fires unpredictably, potentially spreading them in different directions across parched bushland.
“We know it’s going to be a long and difficult night,” said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
Three become one
The so-called mega-blaze formed late Friday when a “finger” of the East Ournie Creek blaze, which had merged with another fire earlier in the week, connected with the Dunns Road fire near the border between New South Wales and Victoria, Rural Fire Service spokesman Anthony Clark told the Sydney Morning Herald.
"It provides a challenge for firefighters, as when they merge, it increases the size and opens up more uncontained perimeter,” he said.
The blaze is the second mega-fire of the ongoing crisis, following the Gospers Mountain "mega-fire", which was ignited by a lightning strike in October and by December had merged with other fires to consume an area seven times the size of Singapore.
While the fires have mostly impacted Australia’s most populous states of New South Wales and Victoria, communities elsewhere in the country have also been hit. Authorities said Friday that almost half of Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination off South Australia renowned for its unique wildlife, had been destroyed, while homes were also threatened Friday by fires raging in Perth on Australia’s west coast.
“ScoMo has got to go”
The crisis drew tens of thousands of people into the streets in nine cities across the country Friday, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and for the government to do more to combat climate change.
The “Sack ScoMo” protests — referencing the prime minister’s nickname — represented a manifestation of the public anger at Morrison over his lackluster response to the crisis.
The conservative prime minister, a climate skeptic and vocal cheerleader for the country’s coal industry, sparked fury for taking a family vacation in Hawaii as the fires raged last month, before doing a disastrous PR tour of affected areas where locals and firefighters told him he wasn’t welcome.
At the protest in central Melbourne, “Fuck ScoMo” T-shirts were on sale, while in Sydney, a placard showed the PM on a Hawaiian beach with a cocktail, while fires raged in the background.
Wildfires are a regular threat in Australia; during an outbreak in 2009, more than 170 people were killed — a much higher death toll, although a far smaller area, 1740 square miles, was burned. But the latest fires, raging out of control amid soaring temperatures (the country reached its hottest ever temperature, at 41.9°C last month) and a three-year drought, have spread far beyond what's been seen before. So far the fires have destroyed 39,770 square miles, an area more than ten times the size of that burned in either the California wildfires of 2018 or last year’s fires in the Amazon.
About 2,700 firefighters — including reinforcements flown in from the United States, Canada and New Zealand — are being deployed to fight the fires, which are discharging smoke containing poisonous gases, including carbon monoxide, into the atmosphere. Members of the public burst into applause at Sydney International Airport when a contingent of American firefighters arrived Thursday.
The fires have brought home to many Australians — and others around the world, as the issue has become an international cause celebré — the urgency of confronting the climate crisis. Yet it's also given rise to misinformation campaigns from climate deniers, who have amplified reports of the arrests of arsonists to claim the catastrophe has nothing to do with a changing climate.
Timothy Graham, a senior lecturer on social network analysis at Brisbane’s Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, analyzed Twitter posts using the hashtag #ArsonEmergency and found they were overwhelmingly coming from highly partisan accounts or automated bots. The findings led him to conclude there was probably a disinformation campaign taking place over the issue to discredit climate science, he told the Guardian — similar to ones witnessed in online conversations over the past year’s Amazon wildfires.
The posts seized on reports that New South Wales police had charged 24 people with deliberately lighting bushfires so far this season. But while arson is a factor in bushfires, scientists say they don’t account for the unprecedented scale of the current crisis, and many, like the Gospers Mountain mega-blaze, were ignited by lightning striking parched scrub.
Climate change has made the bushfires longer and more intense, by changing factors such as temperature, weather patterns, fuel condition and environmental moisture, according to the Australian government’s Bureau of Meteorology.
Cover: An intentionally lit controlled fire burns intensely near Tomerong, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in an effort to contain a larger fire nearby. Around 2,300 firefighters in New South Wales state were making the most of relatively benign conditions by frantically consolidating containment lines around more than 110 blazes and patrolling for lightning strikes, state Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)