Australia confronts ‘catastrophic’ fire conditions

The burnt-out remains of cars and property pictured following bushfires in Old Bar, north of Sydney, on Monday. A state of emergency was declared Monday and residents in the Sydney area were warned of "catastrophic" fire danger.
The burnt-out remains of cars and property pictured following bushfires in Old Bar, north of Sydney, on Monday. A state of emergency was declared Monday and residents in the Sydney area were warned of "catastrophic" fire danger.PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images

SYDNEY — Australia is bracing for cataclysmic wildfires Tuesday, as officials warned that strong winds, high temperatures, and parched forests had created some of the worst fire conditions the country has ever seen.

After powerful blazes caused three deaths over the weekend, authorities said people and homes were now at risk from Sydney’s outer suburbs up the southeastern coast to Byron Bay, 500 miles away. An emergency was declared Monday for all of New South Wales as risk warnings reached their highest possible level.

“If a fire starts and takes hold during ‘catastrophic’ fire danger conditions, lives and homes will be at risk,” said Shane Fitzsimmons, the Rural Fire Service commissioner, adding, “We are talking about something we haven’t experienced before in Sydney.”


The fires also became a political issue Monday as the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, said only leftist “lunatics” were linking the blazes to climate change.

Across the region, the day began with preparations for the increased fire risk.

More than 400 schools and education centers across New South Wales, and a number in neighboring Queensland, canceled classes Tuesday.

In Sydney’s suburbs near the Blue Mountains, where a devastating fire destroyed hundreds of homes and left two people dead in 2013, residents reported packing their cars with clothes, water, and essentials in case they needed to flee. Farther north, where fires continued to rage, evacuation centers have been filling up with residents fleeing to safety.

The Country Fire Authority in the state of Victoria reported sending more than 300 members to New South Wales after the state requested help. More than 1,000 firefighters have been fighting blazes across the state since the weekend. Most are volunteers.

Conditions were expected to ease somewhat Wednesday in New South Wales, with temperatures cooling and winds slowing, but the fire threat was expected to remain for several days.


An omen for the current fire season came in September, when a historic lodge in a rainforest burned nearly to the ground.

The areas where fires were raging as of Tuesday morning, north of Sydney near Port Macquarie and the Queensland border, have been suffering from a lengthy drought.

But scientists note that moisture levels of live trees and shrubs around Sydney are also at record lows — even lower than the levels during the Black Christmas fires of 2001, which destroyed more than 500 buildings on the edge of Sydney and burned for three weeks.

Given the drier-than-normal conditions, there is fuel both on the ground, with dry leaves, and in the branches of trees that are dying or dead. And if something ignites, high winds threaten to carry the flames far and wide.

On Tuesday, the federal Bureau of Meteorology reported that winds could reach up to 70 kilometers per hour, or 43 mph, with gusts in excess of 90 kph (56 mph). Gusts could be even higher in the mountains.

“It’s not just out in the bush, because many people in cities are right on that edge,” said Lesley Hughes, a biology professor at Macquarie University who works with the Climate Council of Australia. “Everybody loves to live in the bush and around the bush — it’s becoming an increasingly dangerous place.”

Despite several months of mass protests drawing attention to the Australian public’s concerns about climate change, the country’s deputy prime minister on Monday dismissed questions about its role in the fires.


In an interview with ABC Radio National, the official, McCormack, said it “galls” him when people raise climate change in relation to bush fires. He said global warming was a concern of “raving inner-city lunatics.”

Scientists and firefighters immediately responded. Many pointed out the clear connections between climate change and the extended and more intense fire seasons in Australia, California, and other places around the world.

“Fires are burning in places and at intensities never before experienced,” Greg Mullins, a former fire and rescue commissioner in New South Wales, wrote in an op-ed article for The Sydney Morning Herald, citing rainforests in northern New South Wales, tropical areas of Queensland. and the “formerly wet old-growth forests” of Tasmania.

He also said that thunderstorms caused by fires — known as “pyro-convective” events — were rare in the past but were now happening regularly.

Joëlle Gergis, a climate scientist and writer from the Australian National University, said it was clear that “there’s a human fingerprint on the temperature increases since 1950 — all the weather patterns are occurring in a planet that is warming and warming because of human activity.”

By dismissing the role of climate change, she said, the government was choosing immediate disaster response over long-term needs.

“We’re really missing the opportunity to prepare for future life in Australia,” Gergis said.

“It’s going to be a lot warmer, and we’re going to see a lot of prevalence of extreme fire conditions,” she added. “The further we kick the can down the road and avoid these conversations, we’re really missing the opportunity to get the Australian public ready for what is upon us.”