NewsOctober 18, 2013

Australia's Bushfire Season Turns Sydney's Skies Orange

Brian Kahn

By Brian Kahn

Follow @blkahn

Australia has been enduring its hottest year on record, and the warm temperatures combined with dry conditions have sent wildfires whipping across the southeastern Australian state of New South Wales. The fires — some of the worst in a decade — have caused a deep haze to descend over Sydney and spurred the deployment of hundreds of firefighters across the region.

Smoke from the fires blanketed Sydney. Surreal images from Quartz show eerie orange skies framing the downtown, harbor, and iconic opera house, making the city look like its been transplanted to Mars. Social media also buzzed with pictures of the lingering smoke. Timelapse videos, including the one above, show Australia’s largest city under the orange haze for much of the day.

The out-of-this-world backdrop comes courtesy of smoke from bushfires raging across the state. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) currently lists 91 fires burning. Seven of those have been deemed major fires and have burned an estimated 123,553 acres as of Friday evening local time according to RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons. Firefighters have set up a nearly 250-mile perimeter to battle the current blazes and keep an eye out for new ones.

The fires had impacted 82 of Australia’s parks and protected areas, including the Blue Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Smoke swirls over Bondi Beach, a popular surf and swim spot near Sydney.
Click image to enlarge. Credit: Josh Raymond/Facebook


Photos taken by Barry O’Farrell, the state’s Premiere, during a flyover show large areas of charred trees and destroyed houses. O’Farrell said “hundreds” of houses could have been burned to the ground according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The exact cause of the fires is being investigated, though some have possibly been caused by arson or a downed powerline.

Immediate conditions that have fueled the fires include hot temperatures and strong winds. The newly reopened NASA Earth Observatory reported that temperatures up to 93°F and winds gusting to 56 mph helped fan the flames.

Cool overnight temperatures Friday and during the day on Saturday could aid firefighters, but the forecast for the start of next week isn’t nearly as helpful. Temperatures in Sydney are forecast to reach 83°F on Sunday and 88°F on Monday.

This September was Australia's most extreme on record when it comes to temperature. New South Wales, located in the southeastern part of the country, experienced maximum temperatures up to 9°F above normal for the month.
Credit: Australian Bureau of Meteorology.


Conditions over the past six months also played a key role. This past September was Australia’s hottest on record and kept the country on pace for a record-breaking year. Average temperatures in New South Wales were a whopping 6.1°F above the September norm. Maximum temperatures were even more extreme, measuring 8.3°F above normal.

A wet winter also helped grass and shrubs take hold in large parts of the state. However, the eastern half of the state had a dryer-than-normal September, and that area is where most of the fires are currently burning.

Last month, RFS issued a report warning that this season would see a spike in bushfires due to these conditions. Unfortunately, that season has played out as forecast. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting conditions ripe for wildfires for the rest of spring and early summer as well. Warmer temperatures and drier weather are likely for New South Wales and much of the rest of Australia.

A timelapse showing smoke from the Linksview Road. Fire over two hours.

At least one study has linked last year’s “angry summer,” which featured severe bushfires, with climate change. The angry start to spring in the country is also in line with long-term climate projections. In a report about extreme events, Australia’s Climate Commission noted that many areas in Australia, particularly the southeastern part of the country, are already experiencing an increase in extreme fire weather, the hallmarks of which are hotter and drier conditions.

“The projected increases in hot days across the country, and in consecutive dry days and droughts in the southwest and southeast, will very likely lead to increased frequencies of days with extreme fire danger in those regions,” the report said.

After the recent Australian election, the new conservative government defunded the Climate Commission. However, the commissioners banded together and used crowdfunding to raise $1 million to start the Climate Council, a nonprofit organization to provide climate information on Australia. The Council is planning to release a report specifically about wildfires next month.

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