Australia's Bushfire Crisis Has Spread To The Nation's Capital

Bushfires are still scorching Australia and the crisis is far from over.

On Tuesday, a bushfire dubbed the Orroral Fire started in a national park near the capital city of Canberra quadrupled in size and quickly grew by hundreds of acres an hour. The latest update from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service shows the fire has burned nearly 9,700 hectares, trapping residents on the capital’s outskirts in terrifying conditions.

“The fire may pose threats to all lives directly in its path,” Emergency Services Agency Commissioner Georgeina Whelan said at a press conference on Tuesday.

As of late on Tuesday night, officials said there was no immediate threat to homes in Canberra. But residents of some nearby areas have been told to pack up their essentials and closely monitor conditions. The fast-growing fire forced evacuations on in Tharwa, a small town just 24km south of Canberra on Tuesday afternoon. But half an hour after the order to evacuate, they were told it was too late to drive out of town. Residents of neighbouring rural areas have also been told to stay put and seek shelter immediately as the fire continues to grow.

“Helicopters and large air tankers are water-bombing, establishing containment lines and undertaking aerial surveillance,” Canberra’s emergency services said. But residents have also been told that firefighters may not be able to save properties.

The Canberra fire started yesterday by a military surveillance helicopter, when one of the aircraft’s landing lights likely created enough heat to set the grass on fire. But right now, thanks to the climate crisis, pretty much anything can set the grass on fire. It’s so hot and dry in Australia that conditions are like a tinderbox. And that’s not going to change in Canberra any time soon—temperatures this week are expected to increase, and conditions are expected to stay windy enough to help the fire spread.

“We’re not going to get it out [on Tuesday], or any time soon,” Rural Fire Services Commissioner Joe Murphy told ABC Australia. “This is not a fire that is operating under normal rules.”

The capital’s chief minister Andrew Barr told reporters on Tuesday evening that the fire is the most serious Canberra has faced since 2003. Those blazes ripped through the suburbs of Canberra, destroying 470 homes and killing four. The 2003 fires also caused Australia’s first-documented fire tornado.

The Canberra fire is just the latest in a series of destructive fires that have hit Australia since September. Since then, bushfires have killed at least 33 people and more than 1 billion animals. They’ve also sent smoke streaming around the Southern Hemisphere and destroyed an area the size of Greece. The climate crisis is a major contributor to the catastrophic fire season: 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record.

At the same time, the fires are expected to worsen that crisis. Carbon emissions from the fires have also measurably contributed to what’s expected to be one of the largest year over year rises of atmospheric carbon dioxide on record, showing they not only are set to reshape the continent but the climate itself.

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