In Depth

Australian bushfires: what we know so far

The devastating blazes have claimed six lives and hundreds of homes

The Australian cities of Sydney and Adelaide have been blanketed in smoke this week as the country continues to battle an ongoing bushfire crisis.

Health officials have issued warnings over the “hazardous” air quality, with hundreds of residents seeking treatment for breathing problems.

At least six people have died as a result of the bushfires, which have burned millions of acres of land and destroyed hundreds of properties along Australia’s east coast.

What caused the bushfires?

Most of the bushfires are the result of a “catastrophic” combination of long-term drought conditions and strong winds, says The Guardian.

Global warming has played a significant role in the crisis, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. “Climate change is influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions in Australia and other regions of the world,” says the agency’s website.

Humans have also played a more direct role in starting the fires. The Australian Institute of Criminology has calculated the average number of bushfires a year in Australia at around 52,000, of which an estimated 50% are either “deliberately lit or suspicious in origin”.

What is happening at the moment?

Smoke is covering Sydney, home to around five million people, for the second time in three days, turning the skies grey and blotting out the view of buildings.

The smoke is expected to linger for days according to officials, and is particularly bad in the city centre and in northern suburbs, with air pollution levels up to ten times higher than the national standard.

Many locals say the air quality is the worst they have ever experienced, and paramedics told the BBC they had treated 450 people for breathing problems.

Health warnings have also been issued to residents in Adelaide, the South Australian capital, large areas of which are enveloped in smoke from a nearby blaze.

The bushfires have prompted officials in Victoria to issue a “code red”  - the state’s highest bushfire warning level - for the first time in a decade, reports Melbourne-based newspaper The Age. In February 2009, Australia’s worst bushfires on record killed 173 people across the region.

Country Fire Authority chief officer Steve Warrington has ordered residents to leave some areas of Victoria, warning: “Do not be there. If a fire occurs, you will not survive.”

Record high temperatures are fuelling the misery, with state capital Melbourne recording 40.9C on Thursday.

And the reaction?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has denied claims that his government’s climate change policies have contributed to the fires, and defended himself against criticism by former New South Wales Fire and Rescue chief Greg Mullins and 23 other fire service bosses.

“Just a 1C temperature rise has meant the extremes are far more extreme, and it is placing lives at risk, including firefighters,” said Mullins. “Climate change has supercharged the bushfire problem.”

In response, Morrison said: “To suggest that with just 1.3% of global emissions that Australia doing something differently - more or less - would have changed the fire outcome this season, I don't think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.” 

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