Australia faced a devastating start to its fire season in late 2019, and things swiftly got worse before rains helped contain many of the worst fires in February 2020.
Dozens of fires erupted in New South Wales, Australia, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency in November 2019. Fires rapidly spread across all states to become some of the most devastating on record. An area about the size of South Korea, roughly 25.5 million acres, has burned.
At least 33 people are dead, including at least three volunteer firefighters, and more are missing. Around 3,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged. As blazes intensified in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, thousands of people who were forced to evacuate sought shelter on beaches across New South Wales and Victoria.
The smoke became another disaster. On January 1st, Australia’s capital recorded the worst pollution it’s ever seen, with an air quality index 23 times higher than what’s considered “hazardous.” Smoke in the city crept into birthing rooms, stopped MRI machines from working, and triggered respiratory distress in one elderly woman who died soon after she stepped off a plane.
More than 1 billion mammals, birds, and reptiles likely lost their lives in the blazes, according to one estimate from the University of Sydney. Around 25,000 koalas were feared dead on Kangaroo Island. Eight thousand koalas, a third of all the koalas in New South Wales, are believed to have perished, and about 30 percent of the koalas’ habitat has also been wiped out. The devastation only adds to existing pressures on Australia’s unique ecosystems.
The continent is home to 244 species that are not found anywhere else. The region also has the highest rate of native mammals becoming extinct over the past 200 years. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment published a list on February 11th of the 113 animal species, including the platypus, that most urgently need help following the fires.