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Western Australia Wildfire Brings Widespread Destruction

On the back of hot, windy weather, a wildfire raging in Western Australia continues to wreak destruction across the state. The fire has burned more than 140,000 acres as of Friday and engulfed the small town of Yarloop.

Lightning ignited the wildfires — known in Australia as bushfires — across Western Australia on Wednesday. The largest flared up about 70 miles south of the state capital of Perth and was dubbed the Waroona fire after the nearest town. Flames initially threatened Waroona, prompting an evacuation, before winds changed direction.

On Thursday, the fire flared up in a major way, aided by temperatures that reached up to 104°F and winds that gusted to 37 mph. It quickly outran containment efforts and on Thursday night devastated the small town of Yarloop about 15 miles south of Waroona. An outpost with a population of about 600, the town saw widespread destruction of at least 95 structures, though fortunately there were no fatalities.

Murray Cowper, a local politician, told the BBC, "You've got seasoned firefighters who've been around for many years saying they've never seen anything like it. This could well be the end of the town."

As of Friday evening local time, the fire had burned 143,000 acres and was still not contained. The Australian Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting for severe wildfire conditions to persist on Saturday. Conditions will remain hot — though not as extreme as they were this week — and windy into next week, which could make it a continued challenge for firefighters. 

The fire’s behavior is reminiscent of the Valley Fire in California last year, which exploded and burned an area more than twice the size of Manhattan in just 12 hours.

El Niño could be playing a role in influencing these fires. It tends to increase the odds of hot, dry conditions in Australia. The biggest increases in risk are in eastern Australia, where major fires during February 1983 — a strong El Niño year on the tailend of a long drought — were some of the most costly ever recorded.

And while Australia is no stranger to wildfires in any given year — El Niño or otherwise — climate change is already increasing the likelihood of fire danger weather according a recent report from the Australia Climate Council. By some estimations, the country has already left behind its former climate for a hotter, more dangerous one and things are projected to become hotter and drier still as climate change continues to exert its influence.

Last year was Australia’s fifth warmest on record, though it was Western Australia’s second warmest. In recent years, the country has been racked by heat waves that have been so intense that they have caused tennis players to collapse at the Australian Open and required a new addition to the temperature map color scale. In 2013, large wildfires charred parts of the eastern half of the country and turned Sydney’s skies orange.

Globally, wildfire season has increased by 19 percent since the late 1970s, with an even larger increase in the U.S. Large wildfires are also becoming more common in the western U.S. with a tenfold increase in them in the Northern Rockies since 1970. This past year was a record setter for wildfires in the U.S., with more than 10 million acres burned.

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