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Sydney Faces ‘Catastrophic Fire Danger’ for First Time as 130 Australian Bushfires Burn

Climate
With fires burning across the country, Australian officials say the situation is uncharted territory. CBC News / YouTube screenshot

More than 130 wildfires were burning on Australia's East Coast Sunday, The Guardian reported. The blazes have killed three and destroyed at least 150 structures so far, and conditions are expected to worsen Tuesday, when the greater Sydney area will face "catastrophic fire danger" for the first time.


"Everybody has to be on alert no matter where you are and everybody has to be assume the worst and we cannot allow complacency to creep in," New South Wales (NSW) Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney, according to Reuters.

Sydney is the capital of the southeastern Australian state of NSW and the most populous city in Australia. It is expected to see temperatures of up to 37 degrees Celsius Tuesday, which will combine with high winds to increase fire danger.

Firefighters and scientists have observed that it is unprecedented for so many extreme fires to ignite so early in the season, The New York Times reported.

"The consequences are absolutely apparent and evident over the last few weeks and particularly highlighted in the last 24 hours," Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons of the NSW Rural Fire Service told The New York Times. "We have got the worst of our fire season still ahead of us. We're not even in summer yet."

Scientists have predicted that the climate crisis would make Australia's bushfires more frequent and more extreme: Australia's Climate Council first warned that climate change was already increasing fire risk in 2013. The fires also come as the country has been suffering from a drought, and some of the affected areas are now burning.

But Australia's political leaders dismissed concerns about climate change. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who supports the coal industry, refused to answer questions this weekend about the connection between climate change and the current fires, Reuters reported.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack went further on Monday, accusing climate activists of politicizing the sufferings of fire victims.

"They don't need the ravings of some pure, enlightened and woke capital city greenies at this time, when they're trying to save their homes," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) radio, as Reuters reported.

Former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner and Climate Council member Greg Mullins pushed back against the idea that it was inappropriate to talk about the climate crisis while fires were burning in an opinion piece for The Sydney Morning Herald Monday.

"In the past I have heard some federal politicians dodge the question of the influence of climate change on extreme weather and fires by saying, 'It's terrible that this matter is being raised while the fires are still burning.' But if not now, then when?" he asked.

Mullins pointed out the fingerprints of climate change on the last two decades of Australian fires:

In NSW, our worst fire years were almost always during an El Niño event, and major property losses generally occurred from late November to February. Based on more than a century of weather observations our official fire danger season is legislated from October 1 to March 31. During the 2000s though, major fires have regularly started in August and September, and sometimes go through to April.

The October 2013 fires that destroyed more than 200 homes were the earliest large-loss fires in NSW history – again, not during an El Niño.

This year, by the beginning of November, we had already lost about as many homes as during the disastrous 2001-2002 bushfire season. We've now eclipsed 1994 fire losses.

Mullins also noted that this year's drought was more intense than a major drought in the 2000s; that this year's wildfires were making their own thunderstorms, something that did not used to happen often when he was fighting fires; and that fires were burning in new areas like rainforests in NSW and Queensland.

Terri Nicholson watched firsthand as the fire menaced rainforest from her parents' property in Terania Creek. Her parents, Nan and Hugh Nicholson, were instrumental to a successful blockade that saved the forest from logging 40 years ago.

"Nan and Hugh Nicholson hosted the site of the Terania protest to defend this great rainforest from logging and now we're here defending it due to the effects of climate change," Nicholson told The Guardian. "I don't even have the words right now. It's just gobsmacking and distressing to witness."

The deadliest fire raged near the town of Glen Innes in NSW. Two people died in that blaze, The New York Times reported. One woman was found unconscious and severely burned Friday and died in the hospital. Another body was found in a car Saturday.

The woman has been identified as 69-year-old Vivian Chaplain, a grandmother of six who died trying to protect her home, Radio New Zealand reported. The victim found in a car was identified as George Nole. Another woman, Julie Fletcher, died north of Taree.

At least seven people are also missing from the fire near Glen Innes, according to The New York Times.

"People were burned, lives were lost," Glen Innes Mayor Carol Sparks told The New York Times. "People battled to save their houses and then had to walk out because their cars had blown up — it was just horrific."

More than 50 fires were also burning in the northeast state of Queensland Sunday, where homes were destroyed and thousands were forced to flee, The Guardian reported.

"Most people just want to go back home to see what's actually happening. That's making them very anxious. That's what they're telling us," Red Cross Queensland's emergency services manager Colin Sivalingum told the ABC, as The Guardian reported.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.