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.
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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.