2019–20 Australian bushfire season

2019–20 Australian bushfire season
2019-12-07 East Australian Fires Aqua MODIS-VIIRS-LABELS.png
NASA satellite imagery on 7 December 2019 showing bushfires across the east coast of Australia.
LocationAustralia (nationwide)
Statistics
Date(s)June 2019 – ongoing
Burned areaApproximately 18,600,000 hectares (46,000,000 acres)[1]
Cause
Buildings destroyed6,500+
Fatalities34
Season
Next season →

The 2019–20 Australian bushfire season[a] commenced with serious uncontrolled fires in June 2019.[9] Hundreds of fires, including megafires, have been, or still are burning, mainly in the south east of the continent.

As of 14 January 2020, fires this season have burned an estimated 18.6 million hectares (46 million acres; 186,000 square kilometres; 72,000 square miles),[1] destroyed over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes)[10] and killed at least 34 people.[11][12][13][14][15][b] An estimated one billion animals have been killed and some endangered species may be driven to extinction.[16][17][18] Air quality has dropped to hazardous levels.[19] The cost of dealing with the bushfires is expected to exceed the $4.4 billion of the 2009 Black Saturday fires,[20] and tourism sector revenues have fallen more than $1 billion.[21] By 7 January 2020, the smoke had moved approximately 11,000 kilometres (6,800 mi) across the South Pacific Ocean to Chile and Argentina.[22][23] As of 2 January 2020, NASA estimated that 306 million tonnes (337 million short tons) of CO2 had been emitted.[24][25]

From September 2019 fires heavily impacted various regions of the state of New South Wales. In eastern and north-eastern Victoria large areas of forest burnt out of control for four weeks before the fires emerged from the forests in late December. Multiple states of emergency have been declared across New South Wales[26][27][28] and Victoria.[29] Reinforcements from all over Australia were called in to assist fighting the fires and relieve exhausted local crews in New South Wales. The Australian Defence Force was mobilised to provide air support to the firefighting effort, and to provide manpower and logistical support.[30][31] Firefighters and equipment from New Zealand, Singapore, Canada and the United States, among others, helped fight the fires, especially in New South Wales.[32]

An air tanker[33] and two helicopters[34][35] have crashed as of 23 January 2020, the air tanker crash resulting in the deaths of the three crew. Two fire trucks have been in fatal incidents caused directly by fire conditions, killing three fire fighters.[36][37]

There has been considerable debate regarding the underlying cause of the intensity and scale of the fires, including the role of fire management practices and climate change, and has attracted significant international attention. Politicians have received very mixed receptions when visiting areas devastated by the fires. Many millions of dollars has been donated by the public at large, international organisations, public figures and celebrities for victim relief and wildlife recovery. Convoys of donated food, clothing and livestock feed have been sent to affected areas.

Overview

From September 2019 fires heavily impacted various regions of the state of New South Wales, such as the North Coast, Mid North Coast, the Hunter Region, the Hawkesbury and the Wollondilly in Sydney's far west, the Blue Mountains, Illawarra and the South Coast, Riverina and Snowy Mountains with more than 100 fires burnt across the state. In eastern and north-eastern Victoria large areas of forest burnt out of control for four weeks before the fires emerged from the forests in late December, taking lives, threatening many towns and isolating Corryong and Mallacoota. A state of disaster was declared for East Gippsland.[38] Significant fires occurred in the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Moderately affected areas were south-eastern Queensland and areas of south-western Western Australia, with a few areas in Tasmania and the ACT being mildly impacted.

On 12 November 2019, catastrophic fire danger was declared in the Greater Sydney region for the first time since the introduction of this level in 2009 and a total fire ban was in place for seven regions of New South Wales, including Greater Sydney.[39] The Illawarra and Greater Hunter areas also experienced catastrophic fire dangers, and so did other parts of the state, including the already fire ravaged parts of northern New South Wales.[40] The political ramifications of the fire season have been significant. A decision by the New South Wales Government to cut funding to fire services based on budget estimates, as well as a holiday taken by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, during a period in which two volunteer firefighters died, and his perceived apathy towards the situation, resulted in controversy.

Bushfire smoke over the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge on 29 December

As of 14 January 2020, 18.626 million hectares (46.03 million acres) was burnt or is burning across all Australian states and territories.[1] Ecologists from The University of Sydney estimated 480 million mammals, birds, and reptiles were lost since September with concerns that entire species of plants and animals may have been wiped out by bushfire,[41][42] later expanded to more than a billion.[43]

Since the start of the season, the ongoing bushfires have destroyed 2,176 homes, as well as 48 facilities and more than 2,000 outbuildings in New South Wales alone.[44][45][46][47][48] Twenty-five people were confirmed to have been killed in New South Wales since October. The latest fatality reported was on 23 January 2020 following the death of a man near Moruya.[15][49][50][51][52][53][54][55][56][57][33]

In New South Wales, the fires burnt through more land than any other blazes in the past 25 years, in addition to being the state's worst bushfire season on record.[58][59][60] NSW also experienced the longest continuously burning bushfire complex in Australia's history, having burnt more than 4 million hectares (9,900,000 acres), with 70-metre-high (230 ft) flames being reported.[61] In comparison, the 2018 California wildfires consumed 800,000 hectares (2,000,000 acres) and the 2019 Amazon rainforest wildfires burnt 900,000 hectares (2,200,000 acres) of land.[62]

Whereas these bushfires are regarded by the NSW Rural Fire Service as the worst bushfire season in memory for that state,[63] the 1974 bushfires were nationally much larger[b] consuming 117 million hectares (290 million acres; 1,170,000 square kilometres; 450,000 square miles).[64] However, due to their lower intensity and remote location, the 1974 fires caused around A$5 million (approximately A$36.5 million in 2020[65]) in damages.[64] In December 2019 the New South Wales Government declared a state of emergency after record-breaking temperatures and prolonged drought exacerbated the bushfires.[66][67]

Due to safety concerns and significant public pressure, New Year's Eve fireworks displays were cancelled across New South Wales including highly popular events at Campbelltown, Liverpool, Parramatta, and across Sydney's Northern Beaches, and as well in the nation's capital of Canberra.[68][69] As temperatures reached 49 °C (120 °F), the New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian called a fresh seven-day state of emergency with effect from 9am on 3 January 2020.[70][71][72]

On 23 January, a Lockheed C-130 Hercules air tanker crashed at Peak View near Cooma while waterbombing a blaze, resulting in the death of the three American crew members on board.[33][73] It was one of eleven large air tankers brought to Australia for the fire season from Canada and US.[74] An investigation is underway by the ATSB to determine the cause of the accident.[75] Reaching the crash site proved difficult due to the active bushfires in the area.[75] The crash site was located in dense bushland, and spanned approximately one kilometre.[76]

State / territory Fatalities Homes
lost
Area
(estimated)
Notes
ha acres
Australian Capital Territory 1 0 424 1,050 Area;[77] fatality[c][79]
New South Wales 25 2,176 5,200,000 12,800,000 Area;[1] fatalities;[15][33] homes[80]
Northern Territory 0 5 6,800,000 16,800,000 Area, includes mainly scrub fires, which are within the normal range of area burnt by bushfires each year;[1] homes[81]
Queensland 0 48 2,500,000 6,180,000 Area, includes scrub fires;[1] homes[81][d]
South Australia 3 151 490,000 1,210,000 Area;[1] fatalities;[86] homes (KI:65)[87] (AH:86)[88]
Tasmania 0 2 36,000 89,000 Area;[1] homes[81]
Victoria 5 396 1,400,000 3,460,000 Area;[1] fatalities;[12] homes[89]
Western Australia 0 1 2,200,000 5,440,000 Area, includes scrub fires;[1] homes[81]
Total 34 2,779 18,626,000 46,000,000 [e][b][93] Total area estimate as of 14 January 2020; current figure may be more
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беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Лясныя пажары ў Аўстраліі (2019—2020)