Why the Fires in Australia Are So Bad

This fire season has been one of the worst in Australia’s history, with at least 15 people killed, hundreds of homes destroyed and millions of acres burned. And summer is far from over.

This week, thousands of residents and vacationers in southeastern Australia were forced to evacuate to shorelines as bush fires encircled communities and razed scores of buildings. Military ships and aircraft were deployed on Wednesday to deliver water, food and fuel to towns cut off by the fires.

The hot, dry conditions that have fueled the fires are nothing new in Australia. Here’s why this fire season has been so calamitous.

Record-breaking temperatures, extended drought and strong winds have converged to create disastrous fire conditions.

About 10 million acres have burned in New South Wales, destroying nearly 1,000 homes. Around 90 fires are currently raging in the state, with about three dozen more to the south in Victoria.

In total, roughly 12 million acres have been burned by the fires. By comparison, about 1.9 million acres burned in the 2018 fires in California; those fires, which were the state’s most destructive, killed about 100 people.

As the blazes swept southeastern Australia early this week, the fire season’s death toll reached at least 15, and officials said it was likely to rise. At least seven people were killed on Monday and Tuesday in New South Wales — including a volunteer firefighter, the third to die this season — and another person died in Victoria.

Climate and weather are different but related concepts. Climate is a description of expected long-term weather patterns in a specific place, while weather is the mix of events occurring in the atmosphere at a particular time and place — think temperature, wind and precipitation.

A changing climate has meant an increase in temperatures in the Indian and Southern Oceans, which in turn has meant drier and hotter weather across Australia this summer.

The most dangerous fire days occur when hot, dry air blows from the desert center of the continent toward the populous coasts. A weather front — where air masses at different densities meet — can cause the direction of the wind to change rapidly. Ultimately, that means bigger fires spreading in multiple directions.

Bush fires can be so large and hot that they generate their own dangerous, unpredictable weather systems. These so-called firestorms can produce lightning, strong winds and even fire tornadoes. What they don’t produce is rain.

The volunteer firefighter who died on Monday was crushed after a fire tornado lifted a fire truck off the ground.

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