High temperatures and prolonged dry conditions have resulted in unprecedented bushfire activity across the states of New South Wales (NSW) since early November 2019, in Victoria (VIC), Western Australia (WA) and South Australia (SA) since early December 2019, and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in January 2020. At least 34 people have died as a result of the bushfires and the impact upon air quality is estimated to have affected millions. An estimated 5,900 residential and public structures have been destroyed. Loss of wildlife is estimated to have surpassed 1.5 billion losses, along with tens of thousands of livestock. Due to prevailing drought conditions over all affected states during 2019, agricultural and horticultural sectors will be impacted well into the long-term. Due to the changeable nature of this crisis, assessments are ongoing and all reported figures are expected to change as the situation evolves.
The intensity and size of bushfires in some areas has led to the creation of their own weather systems, generating pyrocumulonimbus clouds, trapping heat and generating strong wind and lightning strikes, in turn sparking further fires. High winds have also helped the bushfires to spread, with some fires ‘jumping’ over highways and other major containment lines. The pace at which the bushfires have spread and the subsequent heavy smoke have made it difficult for emergency services to access and evacuate some communities, at times forcing residents to flee to beaches and other water bodies to avoid impact and await rescue. Power, fuel, and food supplies have been severely interrupted to some communities and road closures have been common. This has resulted in some communities being isolated, or only accessible by air or sea (when smoke conditions allow). The bushfire and weather conditions have also severely impacted telecommunications across most affected areas. Smoke haze has also significantly worsened air quality across southern and eastern Australia, with some areas reaching 20 times above levels considered safe by the Australian Government, including in the major cities of Sydney,
Canberra, and Melbourne. The reduction in air quality is a major public health concern and the Australian Ministry of Health is warning of significant long-term health risks, particularly for vulnerable members of the population such as elderly, infants and those already managing serious health conditions. Mental health is also a significant concern as people face the stress posed by living through prolonged heatwave and bushfire events, the loss of friends and family, loss of livelihoods, property, pets and livestock, and for some, extended periods of displacement.
States of emergency and disaster in NSW and VIC (respectively) have been lifted. However, current forecasts anticipate that the existing bushfires will continue to burn at their current scale or higher, until at least March 2020.
Though NSW and VIC have been the worst hit so far, extreme heat and drought conditions across Australia threatens a high likelihood of further bushfires in existing, and new areas over the coming months.