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Australia is burning: Everything we know, how you can help and where to donate

by Damian Paspalis (2020-01-29)


id="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> Australia is on fire.

water-flowing-over-wicker-baskets.jpg?wiSaeed Khan/Getty Australia is facing an unprecedented national crisis, as bushfires tear through rural communities across the nation. Since September, at least 25 people have died and more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed. The scale of the threat is immense, and fires continue to burn, with authorities calling for people to evacuate their homes. Eerily, the bushfire season has just begun and Australia is bracing for continuous weeks of catastrophic danger. 

Australians caught up in the crisis are taking to social media and pleading for help. Entire towns have been flattened as fires snaked through bushland, across highways and up mountains. In New South Wales and Victoria, the most populous states in the country, people tried to outrun the blaze and highways were clogged with cars. South Australia's Kangaroo Island experienced some of the worst conditions in early January, with a third of the island ablaze. The Army reserves were called in to help the relief effort across the nation, while major cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne, continue to be covered in a dense smoke that has not lifted for months. Some regions of the country recorded air quality measurements 20 times above the hazardous level.

The situation remains dire. Australians are exhausted and frustrated by a lack of clear leadership. With the fire season still in its earliest days and conditions continuing to fluctuate between poor and manageable, help is required. 

Here's what we know about the ongoing fires and how you can help from Australia or afar. 

If you'd just like to find out where to donate or how you can help, you can skip to the end of the page by clicking here
What caused the fires?
This is a complex question. Australia is a continent familiar with bushfires, bushfire management and the importance of fires in regenerating the land. The indigenous people who have lived across the island continent for tens of thousands of years have long known the importance of fire management and how it contributes to the health of ecosystems. Bushfires are a well-understood threat, but the fires now burning across the nation have been described as "unprecedented" in their ferocity and scale.

Fires can start in a number of ways -- from carelessly discarded cigarettes to lightning strikes and arson -- but they're fueled by a dizzying amount of factors. A lack of rain and low soil moisture can help enable small fires to grow in size, and coupled with the high temperatures and fierce winds that Australia has experienced in the last few months, these small fires can become huge infernos. In addition, with the fire season getting longer, the window to perform critical hazard reduction burns has decreased, giving fires a chance to really take hold. 

The bushfire risk for the 2019 season was well known to Australian firefighting chiefs, who had been trying to meet with Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, since April, worried that a crisis was coming, but they were constantly rebuffed. 

What is the connection to climate change?
A greenhouse gas cannot start a fire on its own. Bushfires aren't started by climate change, but they are exacerbated by the effects of global warming. The Climate Council, an independent, community-funded climate organization, suggests bushfire conditions are now more dangerous than they were in the past, with longer bushfire seasons, drought, drier fuels and soils and record-breaking heat. The link between bushfires and climate change has become a political football, but experts agree climate change explains the unprecedented nature of the current crisis. 

Notably, Australia experienced its hottest year on record in 2019, climbing 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than the average, according to a report by the Bureau of Meteorology. Rising temperatures increase the risk of bushfire, and in November, Sydney experienced a catastrophic fire danger for the first time ever. 

There is also a horrifying feedback loop that occurs when great swaths of land are ablaze, a fact the globe grappled with during the Amazon fires of 2019. Bushfires release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The gas, which makes up only a small percentage of the total gases in the atmosphere, is exceptionally good at trapping heat. In just three months, Australia's fires are estimated to have released 350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Experts warn a century or more will be needed to absorb the carbon dioxide released. 

Now playing: Watch this: On the ground and in the cloud, the fight to save the... 5:36 What areas are affected?
Fires are raging in every state, with some of the greatest conflagrations in NSW and Victoria. The Gospers Mountains fires, in NSW, have burned over half a million hectares, and scientists suggest it could be the largest single-ignition point fire in Australia's history. The total area that's been burned is rapidly approaching 8 million hectares (almost 20 million acres). That's almost ten times the amount of burnt area the Amazon experienced in 2019 and about three times the amount burnt in California's 2018 wildfires.

The Japanese weather satellite, Himawari, captured some stunning images from space of the smoke plumes developing off the south-east coast of Australia. You can see the formation of huge pyrocumulus clouds, a type of smoke cloud often seen during bushfires that can generate its own problematic weather -- including lightning storms. 

Impressive Himawari rapid scan animation showing smoke from the NSW & VIC fires heading east into the Tasman Sea. The images are 2.5 minutes apart capturing more detail. Notice the afternoon thunderstorms over NSW. Read about Himawari satellite at website pic.twitter.com/swU1dlYl4e

— Bureau of Meteorology, Australia (@BOM_au) January 4, 2020 The Guardian Australia has an excellent interactive map you can use to understand the extreme size of the fires, and the entire fire front, compared to other cities around the globe. 

The dust and ash from the fires have spread across the ocean and as far as New Zealand's Franz Josef Glacier. On Jan. 1, images emerged of Franz Josef's snowy mountaintops colored a caramel brown. The distance between the glacier and the bushfire front is about the same as the distance from Boston to Miami. 

This glacier is in New Zealand, approx. 2000km away from Sydney. Unreal. website

— jackson ryan