Australia has suffered from its worst fires in recent history. But how did this all happen? And what will the future bring? Scientists are still investigating the underlying causes of the fires, and working to understand how the massive forest fires will ultimately affect the landscape. Researchers across the world are also looking into possible links between the Australian brushfires and fires in other states and nations, such as California wildfires.
Rumors spread quickly after Australian police arrested more than 180 people for fire-related offences since November 2019, but only 24 of those charged were for alleged deliberately lit bushfires. The others were for allegedly failing to comply with a total fire ban or for throwing lit cigarettes or matches.
The climate and weather were the more likely causes. A variety of global factors, including oceans, drives climate and weather. One such driver, known as the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), played an important role in the development of the Australian forest fires. The IOD consists of two poles – the east pole is near Sumatra, Indonesia, while the west pole is in the western Indian Ocean.
The IOD is an irregular change of sea temperatures in which the water at one pole is warmer than at the other. When the water at the west pole is warmer than at the east pole, in a condition scientists refer to as a “positive IOD,” the cold waters off the Australian coast causes drought. The positive IOD became unusually strong by October of 2019, causing record-setting drought in December that created an abundance of downed trees, shrubs, and other forest fuels that can easily catch fire.
Strong winds and updrafts associated with the positive IOD created perfect conditions for hundreds of lightning strikes that sparked hundreds of fires in areas where forest fuels were abundant. This confluence of environmental factors, along with a few handset brushfires, ignited the worst forest fires Australia had seen in 100 years.
Up in Flames
Fire season in Australia began in late July. About 13 percent of the 62,000 annual fires in Australia are the result of lightning strikes. An October lightning strike sparked the Gospers Mountain fire, which burned more than a half-million hectares in the Wollemi National Park. Lightning started several other fires across Australia.
Fires have blazed in every state in Australia, but have hit hardest in the state of New South Wales (NSW). Bushland, wooded areas and national parks, such as the Blue Mountains, have burned. Thick plumes of smoke blanketed Melbourne, Sydney and several other large Australian cities. Fires have damaged homes in the outer suburbs. In fact, the brushfires have destroyed more than 3,000 homes in NSW alone.
At one point, more than 100 fires burned. The fires have claimed 28 lives, including four firefighters, according to a BBC News article published on January 13, 2020. The wildfires have also killed more than a billion animals and hundreds of billions of insects. In fact, the fires have pushed about 100 endangered species to the edge of extinction. The flames razed an estimated 10 million hectares (100,000 sq km or 15.6 million acres) of bush, forests, and parks, potentially causing irreversible forest losses.
Firefighters saved the only known natural stand of 200 Wollemi pines, commonly known as “dinosaur trees,” which peaked in abundance 34 million to 65 million years ago. During this secret mission, air tankers dropped fire retardants into the gorge where the trees stood before a helicopter lowered firefighters into the ravine, where they set up an irrigation system. Firefighters then returned to the stand of trees to operate the irrigation system as the fire approached; the helicopter dropped water at the edges of the stand to protect the trees.
Fires have caused substantial harm to the biodiversity of Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination and wildlife park that lays Australia’s southeast coast. Flames have blazed nearly half of the 1,700-square-mile island, with rescuers going from tree to tree to save what they can.
Then Came the Rains – and More Problems
Rain began to douse fires over certain parts of Australia by the weekend of January 18/19, bringing the total number of fires down to 75. Unfortunately, downpours caused the closure of major roads in Queensland and cut power in parts of NSW. Rainfall and storms over the scorched earth raised the potential for floods.
Other drought- and fire-associated phenomena bombard Australia. Wind gusts of up to 107 kilometers (66 miles) per hour picked up top soil from New South Wales state farms and swirled it into a 300-kilometer (186-mile) wide cloud of red dust, covering drought-stricken towns in its path with thick dust and dirt. A hailstorm pelted the national capital Canberra on January 19, and damaged buildings and cars, cut power to some suburbs, and toppled trees.
Can it Happen Here?
In other parts of the world, many wonder if their areas are susceptible to similar wildfires. In the United States, California has been suffering devastating wild fires for the last 3 years.
The two areas are notable in one big way: the Australian fires were much larger, burning an area about seven times larger than the area burned in California in 2018, which is the most destructive year in history in that state.
There are similarities, though. The climate and vegetation in California is similar to Australia, for example. Communities in both locations are also pushing ever deeper into the fire-prone wilderness. The infernos are more intense, and they are moving quicker than ever before. Finally, acrimonious debates rage over the role of climate change.
It may take years for the exact causes, scope and outcome of the Australian fires to be known. Until then, many parts of the world may be at higher risk of wildfires and other climate- and weather-related anomalies.