Australia fires: The numbers that highlight sheer scale of unfolding catastrophe

Josh White
Fires have ripped through an area that is three times the size of Wales - AFP

Bushfires are an annual problem for Australia, but this season has been unprecedented.  With the death toll now rising daily, millions of hectares left in ashes, and scores of homes left in blackened ruins, the blazes have turned huge swathes of New South Wales and Victoria into disaster zones

Queensland, South Australia, and West Australia have also had to tackle scores of devastating fires. 

Some conservative politicians have played down the severity of the crisis, with acting prime minister, Michael McCormack, saying last month that “we’ve had these smoke hazes before. We’ve had bushfires before”.

But the numbers behind the unfolding catastrophe suggest why plenty of experts stress that this is not business as usual. 

What area has burned?

As of January 2, about 5.5 million hectares (13.5 million acres) of land has been burnt. That’s larger than Denmark and The Netherlands — and almost three times the size of Wales.

Of that, about 10 million acres of land has been burned in New South Wales alone.  NSW Rural Fire Service said that in the past few years the total area burned for the whole season was only about 280,000 hectares (92000 acres).

These fires are drastically larger than other recent catastrophic fires, such as the California wildfires in 2018 (about 1.8 million hectares) and the fires in the Amazon rainforest in 2019 (about 900,000 hectares).

A handout photo made available by NASA Earth Observatory of a satellite image showing fires burning across New South Wales in December

Flames have been reported that reached 70 metres (230ft) in height, a fire that would climb above Westminster Abbey (69 metres).

How many people have died?

The eight people killed on New Year’s Eve has pushed the death toll to 18, making it one of Australia's most deadly bushfire seasons.

Some towns and villages have been “lost” to the fires and firefighters have been unable to access them. As such, this death toll is expected to rise.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said on Thursday that there are 17 people unaccounted for in East Gippsland.

Australia’s deadliest bushfire disaster was in 2009 when the "Black Saturday" fire killed 180 people in Victoria.

The risk is not only from the flames. Australian authorities said the smoke that has covered Sydney, Canberra and other towns has produced pollution up to 11 times greater than the hazardous level for humans. In Sydney, air pollution has been at that dangerous level for at least 30 days.

How many animals have perished?

According to the University of Sydney, a staggering half a billion animals have been killed in the fires. 

A third of the entire koala population of NSW — about 8,000 koalas — are believed to have been killed in less than four months.

A koala drinks water from a bottle given by a firefighter in Cudlee Creek, South Australia Credit: AP

There are large numbers of koalas in other fire-affected states, including Victoria and South Australia. Koalas are extremely vulnerable because they move slowly and only eat leaves from the eucalyptus tree which is  filled with oil and thus highly flammable.

How many properties have been destroyed?

More than 1,300 homes have been destroyed while firefighters are still unable to access parts of New South Wales. This figure is expected to rise.

Some towns, such as Balmoral - which is 75 miles (120km) southwest of Sydney - have been almost wiped from the map.

A view of a house damaged by recent catastrophic bushfires in the Southern Highlands village of Balmoral Credit: Rex

Gladys Berejiklian, the NSW premier, said there was “not much left” of the town which had been home to about 400,000 people.

How many fires are there now?

There are almost 100 fires burning across New South Wales and about 30 in Victoria. High temperatures and strong winds have driven flames forward at a rate that firefighters have struggled to beat back.

What temperature records have broken?

On December 18, Australia experienced its hottest day on record with an average maximum temperature of 41.9C (107.4F). This broke the previous record by 1C that had been set only the day before.

2019 was also the hottest on record for Australia with the temperature reaching 1.52C above the long-term average.

The flames have been exacerbated by temperatures of more than 40C and racing winds.  More than two thousand firefighters — including volunteers — have been deployed but the catastrophic conditions are making their jobs impossible.

A firefighter hosing down trees and flying embers in an effort to secure nearby houses from bushfires near the town of Nowra in New South Wales Credit: AFP

The heatwave is continuing this week in southeastern Australia, with high temperatures expected in Sydney and Canberra at the weekend.

According the the Bureau of Meteorology, Australia has warmed overall by more than 1C since 1910, with most of that rise in temperature occurring since 1950.

What is the current economic cost of the crisis?

One analyst, SGS Economics and Planning, suggested that the cost of the fire to Sydney alone could be more than $50 million (£26.5 million) a day. 

That does not factor in the damage caused to the health of its residents by smoke, which will have a huge impact on government spending. Sydney currently has the worst air quality of any city in the world.

The rubble of buildings sits on the ground after they were destroyed by fire in Cobargo, New South Wales Credit: Rex

Deloitte said in 2017 that the Australia would face growing costs from the increasing rate of natural disasters, reaching about $39 billion (£20.7 billion) per year by 2050.

Between October and late December, there were $240m (£127 million) in insurance claims, with about 2,306 claims worth about $182.6m (£96.7 million), from fires on the New South Wales mid-north coast and in Queensland.

The Black Saturday fires cost Australia $4.4 billion (£2.3 billion), according to the royal commission set up to deal with the disaster.