When Fire Weather Becomes the Norm

The fires in Australia are a case study in the realities of climate change.

The red sky in Australia, a result of the wildfires.
Saeed Khan / Getty

I met Claire Yeo, a fire meteorologist at Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, more than 10 years ago when I covered the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Australia’s southeastern mainland state. The February 2009 fires were the most destructive and deadly the country had seen—shocking even to Yeo. At the time, she thought those fires would be a defining—and singular—event in her career.

Since then, global temperatures have steadily increased and the continent has become drier, leading Yeo to worry about a Black Saturday redux. Yet what she feared might be coming was nothing compared with the fires that have burned so much of Australia’s east coast over the past two months. The scale of destruction has been unprecedented. Worst of all, Yeo told me, the peak of the fire season in the Southeast is still to come. So it’s not over yet.

Climate change has long promised enormous, diffuse effects, although imagining how it will play out in our lives has always been difficult. The fires in Australia are a case study, an augur of what’s coming for everyone, not just of cataclysmic horror but also a grinding low-grade drag on daily life—the burden of having to constantly think about the peculiarities and consequences of the weather.

These fires have killed at least 29 people so far. Far more have lost homes and belongings, or experienced trauma that will take a long time to resolve. On New Year’s Eve, fires surrounded the seaside town of Mallacoota, Victoria, forcing thousands of trapped residents and tourists to take refuge on the beach or out on the water in small boats.* They waited for hours as the smoke blotted out the sun and the fire got closer. Emergency-service workers told them that if they heard sirens, everyone must get in the water. Such terrible scenes have played out all over the state as fires have burned out of control.

In the bush, the fires have killed millions of animals. Rescue workers have recounted hearing koalas screaming in the trees. So many of the marsupials have died that scientists might classify them as endangered in certain regions of Australia. Ecologists are worried that 100 threatened animal species have been either critically endangered or effectively wiped out, as the fires have engulfed many national parks. Even the beaches are awash with thousands of bird carcasses; in Mallacoota, one local man counted 25 different species along a short stretch of shore.

In Australia’s eastern cities, smoke from the fires sent the air-pollution index off the charts, and people who are normally unaffected by rural events found themselves gasping on city streets. I live in Melbourne, the Victorian capital, and a city relatively far from the fires, and the smoke here was omnipresent and eerie. It obscured city buildings and settled in my local park like a fog.

During the Australian Open, held in Melbourne, the Slovenian tennis player Dalila Jakupović fell to the ground coughing and had to abandon her match. Other players have also needed medical relief, prompting climate scientists to call for the Open to move to a cooler season. This is a relatively small consequence given that people and animals are dying. Yet it is an example of the pervasive impact of climate change. Adjusting the global tennis calendar would affect athletes, fans, and tourism operators worldwide.

The Australian tourism and airline industries have already lost billions of dollars as overseas visitors canceled trips and pilots of commuter flights found they could not land because conditions were too dangerous. I flew into Sydney on one of the bad days, and the smell of smoke inside the plane, still hundreds of meters in the air, was so intense that the pilot made an announcement reassuring travelers that it came from the bushfires, not the aircraft.**

Because of the fires, we in Australia have become more attuned to the weather—specifically, fire weather, the extremely high temperatures and hot, dry winds that can bring a disaster. Yeo told me that 10 years ago, no one but meteorologists knew much about pyrocumulus clouds, the apocalyptic-looking clouds that occur when an enormous fire generates its own convection column. Now journalists ask her questions about them, and people mention them on social media.

Yeo told me she had nightmares for a long time after the Black Saturday fires, and not many people really understand the pressures of trying to predict this type of weather in real time, as the bush is burning. Her work has the potential to save towns and moms and children and koalas and endangered species and entire ecosystems.

Yeo and her colleagues knew this fire season had the potential to be disastrous: Drought affected a huge area of the east coast, and dry lightning was pervasive. Her data showed it, but she told me that it’s human nature to hope a calamity like these megafires won’t happen. Now there’s no denying these weather extremes will only continue; we’ve crossed a line from talking about climate change to living in it.

Last night in Melbourne, the sky was unrecognizably red and heavy, and this morning when I walked out the door, brown dust from hundreds of miles away covered the steps and the cars and the road.

* An earlier version of this article misstated the state where Mallacoota is located. It is in Victoria, not New South Wales.

** An earlier version of this article misstated the height of the plane the author was flying in. It was hundreds of meters in the air, not hundreds of kilometers.