Three U.S. firefighters were killed when a water tanker plane crashed while fighting bushfire in Australia, local authorities confirmed on Thursday.
The Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules Large Air Tanker, owned by Canadian operator Coulson Aviation, had been fighting a bushfire in New South Wales (NSW).
The plane had served in NSW for several years. The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) said earlier it lost contact with the plane on Thursday. A flight tracking website showed that the flight path ended south of Canberra.
"Tragically there appear to be no survivors as a result of the crash," said RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, adding all three crew members were U.S. citizens.
"It's impacted heavily with the ground and initial reports are that there was a large fireball," he said.
Although teams are continuing to search for the wreckage, with two out-of-control fires burning at emergency level, efforts to recover the downed aircraft have been largely hampered.
Gladys Berejiklian, premier of NSW, expressed her condolence to families of the deceased.
Large Air Tankers have the capacity to dump 15,000 liters of fire retardant in hard-to-access locations, allowing ground crews to create vital containment lines.
While firefighters have had some relief over the past week with heavy rain and cooler, more favorable wind conditions, on Thursday, temperature soared to over 40 degrees centigrade in some parts.
As a result, simmering fireground once again reignited.
"At 3:00 p.m. local time, there's 84 bush or grass fires across New South Wales State with nearly 40 yet to be contained," NSW RFS said on social media.
"Five fires are at Emergency Warning level. A southerly change is moving up the coast. It's not likely to reach places like Sydney until early tomorrow morning."
The smoke from one grass fire was so bad that Canberra Airport was forced to shut down, with all flights in and out of the nation's capital cancelled or severely delayed.
When asked about Thursday's plane crash, NSW Premier Berejiklian told reports that "it demonstrates the dangerous work currently being undertaken, and it also demonstrates the conditions that our firefighters are working under."
"There are in excess of 70 aircraft that have been used today alone. Today is a stark and horrible reminder of the dangerous conditions that our volunteers, emergency services personnel undertake daily," she said.
The identity of pilots has not yet been revealed by authorities.
A mammoth clean-up has been underway since Tuesday after freak thunderstorms lashed Australia's east overnight, leaving around 30,000 homes without power.
Rolling through Canberra in the afternoon, the monster storm system that saw golf-ball-sized hailstones batter the national capital, continued further east as the evening went on hitting large parts of New South Wales (NSW), Queensland and Victoria.
According to the NSW State Emergency Service (SES), there were more than 800 calls for assistance overnight, with most coming from Sydney's southern suburbs.
"Predominantly it was for downed trees," NSW SES Director of Operations Paul Bailey told Sky News.
"But we also had a few very serious incidents where trees had fallen on cars with people in them. Those people were rescued from those vehicles and luckily they were not terribly injured."
"We also had a lot of leaking roofs because there was some significant wind associated with this storm and it did tear a few roofs off."
With gusts clocked at over 100 km per hour in some parts, dramatic vision uploaded to social media showed sections of roof from the Bringelly Village Shopping Centre in Sydney's west flying through the air and smashing into traffic on a main road.
In the Blue Mountains region, two males aged 16 and 24, were struck by lightning in separate incidents. They are both in a stable condition recovering in hospital.
Although the storm cells were extremely powerful, Bureau of Meteorology Forecaster Abrar Shabren told Xinhua that the inland troughs which caused the wild weather are actually quite common in the summer months Down Under.
"The usual weather pattern that we have at this time of the year, that's triggering these inland troughs which are developing moisture, forming convective clouds, and that's why we're seeing a lot of thunderstorm activity," he said.
Further north in Queensland, that thunderstorm activity brought a total of 44,000 lightning strikes, which left around 20,000 homes without power.
Likewise in NSW, electricity generator Ausgrid said, 14,000 homes lost power due to the strong winds, lightning and hail.
But on Tuesday morning, the company said, "less than 4,000 customers remained without power."
While the storm caused a huge amount of destruction resulting in 320 million Australian dollars (220 million U.S. dollars) worth of insurance claims according the Australian Newspaper, for some communities facing the threat of bushfires, the wet weather was a welcome sight.
In the first week of January, there were around 150 wildfires burning across the east coast, at the moment there are only 80.
Dust storms, hail and flash floods have battered beleaguered Australian cities in recent days, extreme weather that has diminished the threat from scores of wildfires that continue to blaze across the country's southeast.
A hail storm in the national capital Canberra on Monday damaged public buildings, businesses, homes and cars, cut power to some suburbs, brought down trees, caused flash flooding and injured two people, emergency services officials said.
To the west, a 300-kilometer (186-mile) wide cloud of red dust was carried by wind gusts up to 107 kilometers (66 miles) per hour and descended on the drought-stricken towns of Dubbo, Broken Hill, Nyngan and Parkes, local media reported. Much of the dust is top soil from New South Wales state farms.
"It's part and parcel of this record drought we've got at the moment," Dubbo Mayor Ben Shields told Nine Network television.
Hail struck Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city, on Sunday and more hail storms are forecast to return. The city has been choked by smoke from distant wildfires in Victoria state in recent weeks.
Unusually intense storms over the weekend caused flash flooding in the cities of Brisbane and Gold Coast in Queensland state just north of New South Wales, where most of the wildfire destruction has occurred.
The fires have claimed at least 28 lives since September, destroyed more than 2,600 homes and razed more than 10.4 million hectares (25.7 million acres). The area burned is larger than the U.S. state of Indiana.
Widespread recent rainfall in New South Wales and Victoria have helped but have not extinguished major fires in Australia's two most populous states.
Authorities have warned the fire danger will escalate this week in both states with rising temperatures and drier conditions.
Australia's forests are burning at a rate unmatched in modern times and scientists say the landscape is being permanently altered as a warming climate brings profound changes to the island continent.
Heat waves and drought have fueled bigger and more frequent fires in parts of Australia, so far this season torching some 40,000 square miles (104,000 square kilometers), an area about as big as Ohio.
With blazes still raging in the country's southeast, government officials are drawing up plans to reseed burned areas to speed up forest recovery that could otherwise take decades or even centuries.
But some scientists and forestry experts doubt that reseeding and other intervention efforts can match the scope of the destruction. The fires since September have killed 28 people and burned more than 2,600 houses.
Before the recent wildfires, ecologists divided up Australia's native vegetation into two categories: fire-adapted landscapes that burn periodically, and those that don't burn. In the recent fires, that distinction lost meaning — even rainforests and peat swamps caught fire, likely changing them forever.
Flames have blazed through jungles dried out by drought, such as Eungella National Park, where shrouds of mist have been replaced by smoke.
"Anybody would have said these forests don't burn, that there's not enough material and they are wet. Well they did," said forest restoration expert Sebastian Pfautsch, a research fellow at Western Sydney University.
"Climate change is happening now, and we are seeing the effects of it," he said.
High temperatures, drought and more frequent wildfires — all linked to climate change — may make it impossible for even fire-adapted forests to be fully restored, scientists say.
"The normal processes of recovery are going to be less effective, going to take longer," said Roger Kitching, an ecologist at Griffith University in Queensland. "Instead of an ecosystem taking a decade, it may take a century or more to recover, all assuming we don't get another fire season of this magnitude soon."
Young stands of mountain ash trees — which are not expected to burn because they have minimal foliage — have burned in the Australian Alps, the highest mountain range on the continent. Fire this year wiped out stands re-seeded following fires in 2013.
Mountain ash, the world's tallest flowering trees, reach heights of almost 90 meters (300 feet) and live hundreds of years. They're an iconic presence in southeast Australia, comparable to the redwoods of Northern California, and are highly valued by the timber industry.
"I'm expecting major areas of (tree) loss this year, mainly because we will not have sufficient seed to sow them," said Owen Bassett of Forest Solutions, a private company that works with government agencies to re-seed forests by helicopter following fires.
Bassett plans to send out teams to climb trees in parts of Victoria that did not burn to harvest seed pods. But he expects to get at most a ton of seeds this year, about one-tenth of what he said is needed.
Fire is a normal part of an ash forest life cycle, clearing out older stands to make way for new growth. But the extent and intensity of this year's fires left few surviving trees in many areas.
Already ash forests in parts of Victoria had been hit by wildfire every four to five years, allowing less marketable tree species to take over or meadows to form.
"If a young ash forest is burned and killed and we can't resow it, then it is lost," Bassett said.
The changing landscape has major implications for Australia's diverse wildlife. The fires in Eungella National Park, for example, threaten "frogs and reptiles that don't live anywhere else," said University of Queensland ecologist Diana Fisher.
Fires typically burn through the forest in a patchwork pattern, leaving unburned refuges from which plant and animal species can spread. However, the megafires raging in parts of Australia are consuming everything in their path and leaving little room for that kind of recovery, said Griffith University's Kitching.
In both Australia and western North America, climate experts say, fires will continue burning with increased frequency as warming temperatures and drier weather transform ecosystems around the globe.
The catastrophic scale of blazes in so many places offers the "clearest signal yet" that climate change is driving fire activity, said Leroy Westerling, a fire science professor at the University of Alberta.
"It's in Canada, California, Greece, Portugal, Australia," Westerling said. "This portends what we can expect — a new reality. I prefer not to use the term 'new normal'... This is more like a downward spiral."
Forests can shift locations over time. However, that typically unfolds over thousands of years, not the decades over which the climate has been warming.
Most of the nearly 25,000 square miles (64,000 square kilometers) that have burned in Victoria and New South Wales has been forest, according to scientists in New South Wales and the Victorian government.
By comparison, an average of about 1,600 square miles (4,100 square kilometers) of forest burned annually in Australia dating back to 2002, according to data compiled by NASA research scientist Niels Andela and University of Maryland research professor Louis Giglio.
Unlike grasslands, which see the vast majority of Australia's huge annual wildfire damage, forests are unable to regenerate in a couple of years. "For forests, we're talking about decades, particularly in more arid climates," Andela said.
Most forested areas can be expected to eventually regenerate, said Owen Price, a senior research fellow at the University of Wollongong specializing in bushfire risk management. But he said repeated fires will make it more likely that some will become grasslands or open woodlands.
Price and others have started thinking up creative ways to combat the changes, such as installing sprinkler systems in rainforests to help protect them against drought and fire, or shutting down forested areas to all visitors during times of high fire danger to prevent accidental ignitions.
Officials may also need to radically rethink accepted forest management practices,. said Pfautsch, the researcher from Western Sydney.
That could involve planting trees in areas where they might not be suitable now but would be in 50 years as climate change progresses.
"We cannot expect species will move 200 kilometers (125 miles) to reach a cooler climate," said Pfautsch. "It's not looking like there's a reversal trend in any of this. It's only accelerating."
Australia's unprecedented wildfires season has so far charred 40,000 square miles (104,000 square kilometers) of brushland, rainforests, and national parks — killing by one estimate more than a billion wild animals. Scientists fear some of the island continent's unique and colorful species may not recover. For others, they are trying to throw lifelines.
Where flames have subsided, biologists are starting to look for survivors, hoping they may find enough left of some rare and endangered species to rebuild populations. It's a grim task for a nation that prides itself on its diverse wildlife, including creatures found nowhere else on the planet such as koalas, kangaroos and wallabies.
"I don't think we've seen a single event in Australia that has destroyed so much habita t and pushed so many creatures to the very brink of extinction," said Kingsley Dixon, an ecologist at Curtin University in Perth.
Not long after wildfires passed through Oxley Wild Rivers National Park in New South Wales, ecologist Guy Ballard set out looking for brush-tailed rock wallabies.
The small marsupials resemble miniature kangaroos with long floppy tails and often bound between large boulders, their preferred hiding spots.
Before this fire season, scientists estimated there were as few as 15,000 left in the wild. Now recent fires in a region already stricken by drought have burned through some of their last habitat, and the species is in jeopardy of disappearing, Ballard said.
In prior years, his team identified a handful of colonies within the national park. After the recent fires, they found smoking tree stumps and dead animals.
"It was just devastating," said Ballard from the University of New England in Armidale. "You could smell dead animals in the rocks."
But some wallabies, his team discovered, were still alive. "All you can do is focus on the survivors," he said.
Australia's forests and wildlife evolved alongside periodic wildfires. What's different this year is the vast extent of land burned — an area as big as Kentucky — against a backdrop of drought and searing temperatures attributed to climate change. Last year, among the driest in more than a century, saw temperatures that routinely topped 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius).
Not all animals will perish in the blazes. Some can shelter in rock crevices or hide deep in underground burrows. Yet when survivors emerge into a fire-scorched wasteland, they will face hunger, thirst and non-native predators, including introduced foxes and feral cats.
Since fires swept through parts of Oxley Wild Rivers National Park nearly two months ago, there's been little rain and no green shoots.
So Ballard's team has trekked through the ash-covered forest carrying water and sacks of sweet potatoes, carrots and food pellets.
"There are so few left that, with a species this rare, every individual counts," he says.
Elsewhere in New South Wales, conservation workers are dropping vegetables from airplanes into scorched forests, hoping that wallabies and other species find a meal.
In the state of Victoria, authorities estimate that brush-tailed rock wallabies lost 40% of their habitat as did another rare marsupial, the long-footed potoroo, according to a preliminary damage assessment.
The full toll on Australia's wildlife includes at least 20 and possibly as many as 100 threatened species pushed closer to extinction, according to scientists from several Australian universities.
"The worry is that with so much lost, there won't be a pool of rare animals and plants to later repopulate burnt areas," said Jim Radford, an ecologist at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
The fires could knock out rainforest species dating back to the time of the Gondwana supercontinent, before the modern continents split apart, he said.
University of Sydney ecologist Christopher Dickman estimated that more than 1 billion animals have been killed so far. His calculations took previously-published animal density numbers for different vegetation types and multiplied that by acreage burned.
He says that number does not include bats, amphibians, insects or other invertebrates.
The wildlife toll includes tens of millions of possums and small marsupials known as gliders, which live in tree tops and can leap extraordinary distances by using a parachute-like membrane of skin between their ankles and wrists. State officials in Victoria predicted more than a 25% reduction in glider numbers from the fires.
"The implications for some species are pretty grim," Dickman said. "If we can't protect them here, they're gone. No one else has them."
The Australian government announced Monday that it was spending $50 million on emergency wildlife rescue efforts and habitat recovery.
Fires are still burning in the Blue Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site west of Sydney — one of the last strongholds of the regent honeyeater, an elegant black and yellow bird that has already lost 95% of its breeding habitat since European settlers arrived in Australia.
There are only 300 to 400 of the birds left in the wild, says Ross Crates, an ecologist at Australia National University. They are dependent on nectar from certain eucalyptus tree blossoms, but the dry weather has meant that many trees are producing no nectar.
After the wildfires subside, Crates plans to survey what's been newly scorched. "Even for birds that survive the fires, we are concerned about how they will feed and nest."
In recent months, areas that don't usually burn went up in flames. Some rainforests dried up in the drought and extreme heat, allowing fire to sweep through them.
Few images have tugged at heartstrings more than koalas clinging to burnt trees. Unlike birds or ground mammals, they cannot fly away or burrow underground.
While koalas are not classified as vulnerable to extinction, their populations in some fire-ravaged areas may have been snuffed out. "We know there's been a massive reduction of their overall habitat, and we're not even at the end of fire season," said Mathew Crowther, an ecologist at the University of Sydney.
"Koalas won't go extinct in the next few years, but if their habitat is destroyed bit by bit, it could eventually be death by a thousand cuts. We have to look at long-term trends — what will the temperatures and wildfires be like in the future?"