Australia’s Wildfire Crisis: Key Numbers Behind the Disaster

Edward Johnson
Australia’s Wildfire Crisis: Key Numbers Behind the Disaster

(Bloomberg) -- Australia is in the grip of deadly wildfires burning across the country, triggering an emotive debate about the impact of climate change in the world’s driest-inhabited continent. The unprecedented scale of the crisis, and images of terrified tourists sheltering on beaches from the infernos, has shocked many Australians.

With the nation only midway through summer and suffering a prolonged drought, authorities fear the death toll will continue to mount as more homes and land are destroyed. Here are some key details of the crisis:

How many people have died?

Since the fire season began months ago during the southern hemisphere winter, at least 28 people have died. Among the fatalities are volunteer firefighters, including a young man who died when his 10-ton truck was flipped over in what officials have described as a “fire tornado.” Australia’s worst wildfires came in 2009 when the Black Saturday blazes left 180 people dead.

How big an area has burned?

Massive tracts of land have burned. Almost 12 million hectares (30 million acres) have been destroyed -- that’s almost the size of England. In New South Wales state alone, more than 5.2 million hectares of forest and bush has been destroyed, while more than 1.4 million hectares has been burned in Victoria. The fires are so large they are generating their own weather systems and causing dry lightning strikes that in turn ignite more. One blaze northwest of Sydney, the Gospers Mountain fire, has destroyed about 512,000 hectares -- about seven times the size of Singapore.

The scale of the blazes dwarfs the California wildfires in 2018, which destroyed about 1.7 million acres, and about 260,000 acres in 2019.

How many homes have been destroyed?

Some 2,600 homes have been destroyed, mostly in New South Wales. Scores of rural towns have been impacted, including the community of Balmoral about 150 kilometers southwest of Sydney, which was largely destroyed before Christmas.

What’s the economic impact?

The near-term cost is mounting. Toxic smoke shrouding Canberra has shuttered businesses and government departments and forced national carrier Qantas Airways Ltd. to cancel flights. The Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of 2020 that brings in an estimated A$290 million, has seen qualification games disrupted due to the smoke. Economists estimate the wildfires and associated drought could cut up to half a percentage point off GDP growth as agriculture, tourism and sentiment take a hit.

How has wildlife been affected?

The University of Sydney estimates that 800 million animals have been killed by the bushfires in New South Wales alone since September and one billion have died nationally. The “highly conservative figure” includes mammals, birds and reptiles killed either directly by the fires, or later due to loss of food and habitat. The fires have raised concerns in particular about koalas, with authorities saying as much as 30% of their habitat in some areas had been destroyed. Images of the marsupials drinking water from bottles after being rescued have gone viral on social media.

How can I help?

Donations are flooding in to help with the relief effort, led by wealthy philanthropists, companies, investment banks and a string of celebrities. Mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation has pledged A$70 million. Morgan Stanley Chief Executive Officer James Gorman, who is Australian, is pitching in A$1 million, while pledges have come in from stars such as Elton John, Chris Hemsworth, Bette Midler and Nicole Kidman.

--With assistance from Jason Scott.

To contact the reporter on this story: Edward Johnson in Sydney at ejohnson28@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Edward Johnson at ejohnson28@bloomberg.net, Jason Scott

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