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Australia Deploys Military Reservists To Combat Wildfire, As Thousands Evacuate

Firefighters battle a blaze engulfing trees in the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on Dec. 31, 2019. Fire conditions worsened into the New Year, with thousands forced to evacuate.
Saeed Khan
AFP via Getty Images
Firefighters battle a blaze engulfing trees in the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on Dec. 31, 2019. Fire conditions worsened into the New Year, with thousands forced to evacuate.

The outbreak of wildfires in Australia has reached a tipping point. Thousands of residents were evacuated this week, as bush fires reached the suburban fringes of Sydney, the skies turning blood-red. Coastline towns in the states of New South Wales and Victoria were consumed by the blaze, leaving thousands homeless. Many are stuck behind fire lines, trapped without power or cell service.

The Associated Press reports that 12.35 million acres of land in Australia has been burned. For comparison, the 2018 California wildfires burned less than 2 million acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The smoke blocking Australia's sky is visible from space. Choking haze drifted to neighboring New Zealand, over 1,000 miles away.

The death toll from the fires, now in their fifth month, has risen to 24. Authorities said mass evacuations of residents living in at-risk areas in New South Wales and Victoria this week prevented a major loss of life.

The Australian government took the unprecedented step to call up 3,000 reservists to battle the escalating fires and conduct evacuations. They deployed additional firefighting aircraft and the HMAS Adelaide, the Navy's largest ship, to evacuate stranded residents along the coast. It is the largest military deployment the continent has seen since World War II.

"This length of [fire] season is unprecedented," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a press conference on Saturday. "The ferocity and the absence of dousing rains that would normally bring a season like this under control is nowhere in sight."

Morrison has been heavily criticized for his handling of the disaster, resisting national intervention prior to this weekend (bush fires are typically handled by state governments) and vacationing in Hawaii as fires escalated in December. Morrison has also routinely minimized the link between extreme fire conditions and global warming.

Last year was the driest and hottest year on record in Australia. The western Sydney suburb of Penrith was the hottest spot in the country on Saturday afternoon, reaching 48.9 degrees Celsius, or 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

"I've never seen anything like it in my life," Mark Fennick of Penrith told NPR's Jason Beaubien, while seeking refuge at a convenience store with his son Henry and their dog Lurch.

While Australia is no stranger to bush fires, a two-year drought combined with record-breaking temperatures has made this fire season unusually volatile and expansive. Fire season began early, around September 6th. The blazes have strained firefighting resources across southeastern states and will likely continue for weeks.

In a news conference, Shane Fitzsimmons, the rural fire commissioner for the state of New South Wales, said Saturday was "one of our worst days on record." A combination of searing heat and low humidity exacerbated conditions for the fire to spread. According to Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius — 104 degrees Fahrenheit — in many areas.

Improved weather conditions and cooler temperatures on Sunday brought a welcome reprieve. Firefighters in New South Wales gained an upper hand on several dangerous blazes.

As of 6 a.m. on Monday morning in Australia, a total of 136 fires were burning across the state of New South Wales, with 69 uncontained, according to the state's Rural Fire Service. Crews were focusing on containment of large fires.

The ecological toll of this year's fire season is not fully known, but likely catastrophic. Professor Chris Dickman at the University of Sydney estimates that 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles have been affected in the state of New South Wales since September.

Dr. Gundi Rhoades, a veterinarian in New South Wales, told NPR's Sarah McCammon about the devastating impacts to both domestic animals and wildlife. People are bringing parched koalas into her office.

"Most of [the koalas] we don't see. Most of them are just dead. They just can't get away. The kangaroos. The platypuses. I think they're all gone because their habitat is gone."

The governments of Canada, France and the United States have offered aid and personnel support to Australia.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Kwong (she/her) is the reporter for NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. The podcast explores new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines — all in about 10 minutes, Monday through Friday.