Crews battling Australia's wildfires said Sunday that they have been able to turn from defense to offense for the first time in weeks thanks to a break in the weather.
Dale McLean, who is helping manage the response to a fire near the town of Bodalla in New South Wales state , was part of team that was bulldozing down small trees and burning scrub ahead of the fire's projected path to try to stop it from reaching a major highway by starving it of fuel.
"This fire took a major run about seven or eight days ago, and with the weather changing now, the weather settling down, the fire has settled down," he said. "The fire behavior has changed. So we're able to get in front of the fire now, get on the offensive."
Other workers echoed McLean's comments, saying cooler temperatures and mild winds have finally offered them a chance to make progress. The weather is expected to remain benign for the next week, although any deterioration in conditions after that could see the wildfires flare up again.
The progress came after a firefighter was killed by a falling tree. Bill Slade — one of the few professionals among mainly volunteer brigades battling blazes across southeast Australia — died on Saturday near Omeo in eastern Victoria state, Forest Fire Management Victoria Executive Director Chris Hardman said.
The 60-year-old married father of two was commended in November for 40 years of service with the forestry agency.
"Although we do have enormous experience in identifying hazardous trees, sometimes these tree failures can't be predicted," Hardman said. "Working on the fire ground in a forest environment is a dynamic, high-risk environment and it carries with it significant risk."
The tragedy brings the death toll to at least 27 in a crisis that has destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched an area larger than the U.S. state of Indiana since September. Four of the casualties have been firefighters.
The crisis has brought accusations that Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative government needs to take more action to counter climate change, which experts say has worsened the blazes. Thousands of protesters rallied Friday in Sydney and Melbourne, calling for Morrison to be fired and for Australia to take tougher action on global warming.
The prime minister said Sunday that his government was building resilience to the fire danger posed by climate change.
He said the government was developing a national disaster risk reduction framework within the Department of Home Affairs that will deal with wildfires, cyclones, floods and drought.
"This is a longer-term risk framework model which deals with one of the big issues in response to the climate changing," Morrison said.
He said his government accepted that climate change was leading to longer, hotter and drier summers, despite junior government lawmaker George Christensen posting on social media over the weekend that the cause of the latest fires was arson rather than man-made climate change. Another junior lawmaker, Craig Kelly, has also publicly denied any link between climate change and fire crisis.
State authorities have said a minority of fires are deliberately lit.
"The government's policy is set by the Cabinet. Our party room has a broad range of views," Morrison said of those within government ranks who reject mainstream climate science.
Morrison also announced that 76 million Australian dollars ($52 million) would be spent on providing psychological counseling for firefighters and fire-affected communities as part of a previously announced AU$2 billion ($1.4 billion) recovery fund.
"There has been a deep scar in the landscape that has been left right across our country," Morrison said. "But I am also very mindful, as is the government, of the very real scars that will be there for quite a period of time to come for those who've been exposed to the trauma of these bushfires."
While the fire threat is most acute in rural communities, wildfire smoke that has choked some of Australia's largest cities is a reminder to many urban Australians of the unfolding disaster.
With flames climbing as high as a 15-story building and menacing his supposedly fireproof home on three sides, Justin Kam ran to the laundry room and opened the door. Inside was fire.
That's not supposed to happen, he thought.
It was clear his family's fortress had been breached and they were in mortal danger and needed to get out.
"Once the fire had penetrated the structure, that was the signal: Time to get out. You can't save it," he said. "Staying in any longer and we really would've been a statistic."
They escaped — just barely — but found themselves among 2,000 homeowners whose houses have burned down during what has been been a catastrophic fire season Down Under, full of apocalyptic images that have focused the world's attention on climate change.
The blazes have killed at least 25 people, scorched an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland and killed hundreds of millions of animals and birds. The fires are expected to flare up later this week when temperatures rise.
Kam and his wife, Helena Wong, had built their home in the New South Wales town of Balmoral with steel framing, reinforced glass so thick you would need a sledgehammer to break it and retaining walls made of rock, all to protect them from Australia's notorious wildfires.
Their defenses turned out to be no match for a rapacious fire so hot it evaporated their outdoor furniture, leaving behind ghostly imprints reminiscent of those after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Justin and Helena had moved to their sleepy village of 400 people 20 years ago and thought they had found their slice of paradise. Their house overlooks a valley filled with eucalyptus trees. Kangaroos hop along their veranda, and a wombat dug a burrow under their deck. Helena began breeding rare chickens.
They knew the fires would come, and had successfully fought two before.
On Dec. 21, Justin was ready, watching the progress of the flames from his roof with binoculars. The couple and their 16-year-old son, Gabriel, who was on Christmas break from school, had been raking and wetting down the areas around the house. The had filled buckets, emptied gas cylinders, put on their smoke masks and left two vehicles running in the driveway, just in case.
But this fire was like nothing they had ever seen. A wall of flame came up the valley. A fireball rose 60 meters (200 feet) into the sky. The flames were so hot they were swirling, and not only moving with the wind, but also against it.
The family raced to douse embers on one side of the house only to find the flames approaching from a different direction.
"It operated like a military tactician," Justin said. "It would hit you from the front, and while you're occupied with that, it would turn around and hit you from the flanks."
The fire killed a half-dozen lizards that took refuge in a pot of water and all of Helena's chickens. When the flames burst into the house, they melted a champagne bottle, fusing it with some buckled porcelain and a sushi knife.
As the family members ran from their house, Helena's shoes melted and embers landed on her shoulders. She believes they made it out by no more than 30 seconds. The back of their car had melted, so they jumped into their truck and drove up their driveway to the end of their street.
But there was nowhere to go from there. They were surrounded by flames.
After what might have been five minutes or 10, the fire front moved on and they drove to the fire station, where others were taking shelter.
Among them was Rosemary Doyle, whose own house had burned down. The fire station itself was under threat, and people began to pray, even the atheists among them. The power went out, and Doyle crawled out from the bathroom, thinking: Not today. Not yet. It's not my time.
On Tuesday, Brendon O'Connor, the town's volunteer fire captain, said that while the fire had moved on from Balmoral, where it burned down about 25 homes, he doesn't know when it will stop.
"Either when the good Lord opens up the heavens and gives us weeks of rain, or it burns to the coastline," he said. "They're really the options. It really is too large to put out. Anything that we're doing isn't working."
O'Connor on Tuesday attended the funeral for one of two volunteer firefighters killed by a falling tree while driving to Balmoral to help battle the blaze.
When Justin and Helena returned to their burned-out home, they found a piece of pink chalk and used it to write on their wall, "We'll be back!"
But it will be a long struggle. They are finding it difficult to navigate through all the red tape, and they didn't have insurance on their house. Justin, a woodworker who built all the family's furniture, said that was because they had other financial priorities, such as school fees and looking after aging relatives.
"We had our plan in place, but still, it spanked us like little naughty children," Justin said. "That's Mother Nature for you."
Thunderstorms and showers brought some relief for firefighters battling deadly wildfires across Australia's drought-parched east coast on Wednesday, but also raised concerns that lightning will spark more fires before dangerous hot and windy conditions return.
Around 2,300 firefighters in New South Wales state were making the most of relatively benign conditions by frantically consolidating containment lines around more than 110 blazes and patrolling for lightning strikes, state Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
"Unfortunately with lightning strikes, it's not always the next day they pop up," Fitzsimmons told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
"They can smolder around in trees and in root systems for a couple of days and pop up under drier, hotter conditions, so we are very mindful of that as we head into Friday," he added.
The unprecedented fire crisis in southeast Australia that has killed 25 people, destroyed 2,000 homes and shrouded major cities in smoke has focused many Australians on how the nation adapts to climate change. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced fierce criticism both domestically and internationally for downplaying the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say helps supercharge the blazes.
The center-left opposition Labor Party has made political capital from the crisis by promising more ambitious policies than the ruling conservative coalition to tackle climate change. Opposition climate spokesman Mark Butler wants the government to allow a debate on climate change in Parliament when it returns in February.
"Hopefully we could fashion a bipartisan position," Butler told ABC. The two sides last held a bipartisan position on climate change in 2007, and have remained bitterly divided ever since on issues such as making carbon polluters pay for their emissions.
Labor had pledged to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions by 45% below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve zero emissions by 2050 if it had won last year's elections.
The coalition government has committed to reduce emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030 and warns that Labor's more ambitious target would wreck the economy. The government argues that Australia is responsible for only 1.3% of global emissions and more ambitious targets would not ease the current fire crisis, which follows Australia's hottest and driest year on record.
The unfolding disaster in Australia, which is likely to continue throughout the Southern Hemisphere summer, has galvanized calls for more global action on climate change.
Elton John and actor Chris Hemsworth are among the celebrities donating big bucks to help aid the firefighting efforts. Hemsworth, an Australian who lives in the drought-affected New South Wales town of Byron Bay, wrote on Twitter that he was donating $1 million and asked his followers to show support. "Every penny counts," he wrote.
John announced during his Farewell Yellow Brick Road concert in Sydney on Tuesday that he will also donate $1 million. The singer said he wanted to bring attention to the devastation that wildfires have caused, saying it has reached a "biblical scale."
Hemworth and John joins a growing list of celebrities, including Pink, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, who have pledged to donate toward relief efforts.
Prince Charles, who is next in line to become the British monarch and king of Australia, said in a video message from Scotland that he and his wife Camilla had been in despair watching the infernos burn across Australia.
"I fear this is a hopelessly inadequate way of trying to get a message to all of you that both my wife and myself are thinking of you so very much at such an incredibly difficult time and in such impossible and terrifying circumstances," the prince said.
Bolstered by cooler weather and desperately needed rain, exhausted firefighters in Australia raced to shore up defenses against deadly wildfires before the blazes flare again within days when scorching temperatures are expected to return.
The first hints of the financial toll from the disaster began to emerge on Tuesday. The Insurance Council of Australia said the estimated damage bill had doubled in two days, with insurance claims reaching 700 million Australian dollars ($485 million).
That estimate comes one day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government was committing an extra 2 billion Australian dollars ($1.4 billion) toward the recovery effort in addition to the tens of millions of dollars that have already been promised. Morrison's funding announcement came amid fierce criticism from many Australians who say he has been too slow to respond to the crisis. He has also faced backlash for downplaying the need for his government to address climate change, which experts say helps supercharge the blazes.
The fires, fueled by drought and the country's hottest and driest year on record, have been raging since September, months earlier than is typical for Australia's annual wildfire season. So far, the blazes have killed 25 people, destroyed 2,000 homes and scorched an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland.
In New South Wales state, 130 fires were still burning on Tuesday, around 50 of which were uncontrolled. The day's cooler, rainier weather was providing thousands of exhausted firefighters a "psychological and emotional" reprieve as they scrambled to strengthen containment lines around the blazes before temperatures rise again, said Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
"It really is about shoring up protection to limit the damage potential and the outbreak of these fires over the coming days," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
The rain was not heavy enough to extinguish the blazes. Victoria state Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said on Monday at least 200 millimeters (8 inches) of rain would need to fall in a short time to snuff out the fires — around 20 times what has fallen across the region in the past day. And officials warned that Australia's wildfire season — which generally lasts through March — was nowhere near its end.
The rain was also complicating firefighters' attempts to strategically backburn certain areas, and was making the ground slippery for fire trucks.
Thousands of army, navy and air force reservists were being dispatched to battle the fires. On Tuesday, rescue crews were still trying to reach some affected communities. A barge was en route to Mallacoota, a coastal town in Victoria cut off for days by fires that forced around 4,000 residents and tourists to shelter on beaches over the weekend. About 300 people were still waiting to be evacuated on Tuesday. Heavy smoke squandered the navy's efforts to airlift the stranded residents out on Monday.
"We know it's frustrating for them," state response controller Gavin Freeman told Australia's Nine Network on Tuesday. "We made several attempts yesterday to get Blackhawks into them but visibility was too poor and it was too dangerous."
Australia's unprecedented wildfires are supercharged thanks to climate change, the type of trees catching fire and weather, experts say and reports India Today.
And these fires are so extreme that they are triggering their own thunderstorms.
Here are a few questions and answers about the science behind the Australian wildfires that so far have burned about 5 million hectares (12.35 million acres), killing at least 17 people and destroying more than 1,400 homes.
"They are basically just in a horrific convergence of events," said Stanford University environmental studies director Chris Field, who chaired an international scientific report on climate change and extreme events. He said this is one of the worst, if not the worst, climate change extreme events he's seen.
"There is something just intrinsically terrifying about these big wildfires. They go on for so long, the sense of hopelessness that they instill," Field said. "The wildfires are kind of the iconic representation of climate change impacts."
ARE THESE FIRES TRIGGERING THUNDERSTORMS?
Yes. It's an explosive storm called pyrocumulonimbus and it can inject particles as high as 10 miles into the air.
During a fire, heat and moisture from the plants are released, even when the fuel is relatively dry. Warm air is less dense than cold air so it rises, releasing the moisture and forming a cloud that lifts and ends up a thunderstorm started by fire. It happens from time to time in Australia and other parts of the world, including Canada, Flannigan said.
"These can be deadly, dangerous, erratic and unpredictable," he said.
IS CLIMATE CHANGE REALLY A FACTOR?
Scientists, both those who study fire and those who study climate, say there's no doubt man-made global warming has been a big part, but not the only part, of the fires.
Last year in Australia was the hottest and driest on record, with the average annual temperature 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above the 1960 to 1990 average, according to Australia's Bureau of Meteorology. Temperatures in Australia last month hit 121.8 F (49.9 C).
"What would have been a bad fire season was made worse by the background drying/warming trend,'' Andrew Watkins, head of long-range forecasts at Australia's Bureau of Meteorology, said in an email.
Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada, said Australia's fires are "an example of climate change."
A 2019 Australian government brief report on wildfires and climate change said, "Human-caused climate change has resulted in more dangerous weather conditions for bushfires in recent decades for many regions of Australia."
HOW DOES CLIMATE CHANGE MAKE THESE FIRES WORSE?
The drier the fuel - trees and plants - the easier it is for fires to start and the hotter and nastier they get, Flannigan said.
"It means more fuel is available to burn, which means higher intensity fires, which makes it more difficult - or impossible - to put out," Flannigan said.
The heat makes the fuel drier, so they combine for something called fire weather. And that determines "fuel moisture," which is crucial for fire spread. The lower the moisture, the more likely Australian fires start and spread from lightning and human-caused ignition, a 2016 study found.
There's been a 10 per cent long-term drying trend in Australia's southeast and 15 per cent long-term drying trend in the country's southwest, Watkins said. When added to a degree of warming and a generally southward shift of weather systems, that means a generally drier landscape.
Australia's drought since late 2017 "has been at least the equal of our worst drought in 1902," Australia's Watkins said. "It has probably been driven by ocean temperature patterns in the Indian Ocean and the long term drying trend."
In this image made from video, an aerial scene shows fires burning in East Grippsland, Victoria state. (Photo: AP)
HAS AUSTRALIA'S FIRE SEASON CHANGED?
Yes. It's about two to four months longer, starting earlier especially in the south and east, Watkins said.
"The fires over the last three months are unprecedented in their timing and severity, started earlier in spring and covered a wider area across many parts of Australia," said David Karoly, leader of climate change hub at Australia's National Environmental science Program. "The normal peak fire season is later in summer and we are yet to have that."
IS WEATHER, NOT JUST LONG-TERM CLIMATE, A FACTOR?
Yes. In September, Antarctica's sudden stratospheric warming - sort of the southern equivalent of the polar vortex - changed weather conditions so that Australia's normal weather systems are farther north than usual, Watkins said.
That means since mid-October there were persistent strong westerly winds bringing hot dry air from the interior to the coast, making the fire weather even riskier for the coasts.
"With such a dry environment, many fires were started by dry lightning events (storms that brought lightning but limited rainfall)," Watkins said.
ARE PEOPLE STARTING THESE FIRES? IS IT ARSON?
It's too early to tell the precise cause of ignition because the fires are so recent and officials are spending time fighting them, Flannigan said.
While people are a big factor in causing fires in Australia, it's usually accidental, from cars and trucks and power lines, Flannigan said. Usually discarded cigarettes don't trigger big fires, but when conditions are so dry, they can, he said.
ARE THE AUSTRALIAN TREES PRONE TO BURNING?
Eucalyptus trees are especially flammable, "like gasoline on a tree," Flannigan said. Chemicals in them make them catch fire easier, spread to the tops of trees and get more intense. Eucalyptus trees were a big factor in 2017 fires in Portugal that killed 66 people, he said.
HOW CAN YOU FIGHT THESE HUGE AUSTRALIA FIRES?
You don't. They're just going to burn in many places until they hit the beach, Flannigan said.
"This level of intensity, direct attack is useless," Flannigan said. "You just have to get out of the way... It really is spitting on a campfire. It's not doing any good."
WHAT'S THE LONG-TERM FIRE FUTURE LOOK LIKE FOR AUSTRALIA?
"The extreme fire season in Australia in 2019 was predicted," said Australian National University climate scientist Nerilie Abram.
"The question that we need to ask is how much worse are we willing to let this get? This is what global warming of just over 1 degree C looks like. Do we really want to see the impacts of 3 degrees or more are like, because that is the trajectory we are on."