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?"
Firefighters in Australia have succeeded in protecting an extremely rare grove of ancient trees from destruction, with specialist teams going to extreme measures as bushfires closed in, authorities confirmed on Wednesday.
The Wollemi Pines in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales (NSW) state are the only known members of their species in the world and are sometimes called the "dinosaur trees" due to their prehistoric origin.
"Wollemi National Park is the only place in the world where these trees are found in the wild and, with less than 200 left, we knew we needed to do everything we could to save them," NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said.
As the fire front approached the trees' confidential location, firefighters doused water and flame retardant from the land and sky, creating a barrier and subverting their destruction.
As well as aerial water-bombing jets, firefighting specialists dropped into the location by helicopter to create a makeshift irrigation system powered by a generator.
While parts of the trees were charred and the surrounding bushland levelled, the Wollemi Pines survived largely unscathed as the fire front passed through the area.
The unique trees were thought to be extinct, until they were accidentally discovered thriving in the Australian wilderness in 1994.
Kean said that the latest operation would act as a lesson for future conservation efforts.
"The 2019 wildfire is the first ever opportunity to see the fire response of mature Wollemi Pine in a natural setting, which will help us refine the way we manage fire in these sites long-term," he said.
"Illegal visitation remains a significant threat to the Wollemi Pines survival in the wild due to the risk of trampling regenerating plants and introducing diseases which could devastate the remaining populations and their recovery."
Fire alarms have been sounding in high-rise buildings across downtown Sydney and Melbourne as dense smoke from distant wildfires confuse electronic sensors. Modern government office blocks in the Australian capital Canberra have been closed because the air inside is too dangerous for civil servants to breathe.
The sun has glowed an eerie red behind a brown shrouded sky for weeks over Australian metropolitan areas that usually rank high in the world's most livable cities indexes.
It's an unprecedented dilemma for Australians accustomed to blue skies and sunny days that has raised fears for the long-term health consequences if prolonged exposure to choking smoke becomes the new summer norm. Similar concerns over smoke are emerging in other regions of the globe being impacted by more fires tied to climate change, including the Western U.S.
"I'm going to give birth any day now, literally, and I'm going to have a newborn baby that I'm going to protect from all this," said Emma Mauch, a pregnant Canberra mother.
Her friend, Sonia Connor, described the struggle of keeping her own energetic 3-year-old daughter contained inside their Canberra house with windows and doors sealed by tape as the outside temperature exceeded 42 degrees Celsius (108 degrees Fahrenheit). It's a choice between air flow in stifling heat or keeping potentially toxic smoke out.
"My daughter hasn't shown any sort of symptoms, let's say. For me, I can feel it in my lungs, my throat has felt weird," Connor said.
"It doesn't seem to be stopping her, but the long-term effects? Who knows? She's 3. Who knows what's going to happen?" she added.
Slovenian tennis player Dalila Jakupovic fell to her knees in a coughing fit on Wednesday while competing in a qualifying match for the Australian Open in Melbourne.
"I've never experienced something like this," Jakupovic told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
"We are used to pollution — like, we play in China and more polluted countries — but this smoke is something different that for sure we're not used to."
Canberra as well as Australia's two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, have at various times in recent weeks rated as the most polluted cities in the world, although some argue the industrial pollutants in places such as New Delhi are more dangerous than wood smoke.
The fires have claimed at least 27 lives since September, destroyed more than 2,600 homes and razed more than 10.3 million hectares (25.5 million acres), mostly in New South Wales state. The area burned is larger than the U.S. state of Indiana.
Hospital admissions have increased in the smoke-affected cities, with some patients suffering asthma for the first time in their lives. The government has responded by distributing 3.5 million free particle-excluding masks.
Acting Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said he was discussing with the government launching a study of the long-term health implications of the wildfire smoke.
Bruce Thompson, president of the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand, is among the respiratory disease experts who predict increases in heart and lung diseases as well as some cancers if climate change makes prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke an annual phenomenon.
"We're breathing in stuff that the lungs don't like that leads to significant changes, especially people who are predisposed to respiratory conditions," Thompson said.
Thompson, who suffers itchy eyes and a running nose from smoke at home in Melbourne, said comparisons could be drawn between the current crisis and a wildfire that ignited coal in the open-cut Hazelwood mine near the town of Morwell in Victoria state in 2014. The fire burned for 45 days, blanketing Morwell and its 14,000 residents in thick smoke and coal dust.
That exposure was still taking tolls on the health of the Morwell community and the wider Latrobe Valley, particularly the young, Thompson said.
Brian Oliver, head of the Respiratory Molecular Pathogenesis at University of Technology Sydney, likened prolonged and repeated exposure to such wildfire smoke to smoking cigarettes.
Oliver predicted increases in smoker diseases across Australia if the wildfire smoke became more common in a drier and hotter future.
NASA says the unprecedented masses of Australian smoke that have drifted east across the Pacific Ocean have returned after circumnavigating the globe.
In the U.S., an estimated 20,000 premature deaths now occur annually due to chronic wildfire smoke exposure. That's expected to double by the end of the century, according to scientists funded by NASA, as tens of millions of people get exposed to massive "smoke waves" emanating from blazes in Western states.
Experts say an increase in serious health problems in California may be almost inevitable for vulnerable residents as the disasters become more commonplace.
Research suggests children, the elderly and those with existing health problems are most at risk.
Short-term exposure to wildfire smoke can worsen existing asthma and lung disease, leading to emergency room treatment or hospitalization, studies have shown. Increases in doctor visits or hospital treatment for respiratory infections, bronchitis and pneumonia in otherwise healthy people also have been found during and after wildfires.
Some studies also have found increases in ER visits for heart attacks and strokes in people with existing heart disease on heavy smoke days during previous California wildfires, echoing research on potential risks from urban air pollution.
For most healthy people, exposure to wildfire smoke is just an annoyance, causing burning eyes, scratchy throats or chest discomfort that all disappear when the smoke clears.
Wood smoke contains some of the same toxic chemicals as urban air pollution, along with tiny particles of vapor and soot 30 times thinner than a human hair. These can infiltrate the bloodstream, potentially causing inflammation and blood vessel damage even in healthy people, research on urban air pollution has shown. Studies have linked heart attacks and cancer with long-term exposure to air pollution.
Whether exposure to wildfire smoke carries the same risks is uncertain, and determining harm from smog versus wildfire smoke can be tricky. There is little known about the long-term effects of wildfire smoke because of difficulties in studying populations years after a wildfire.
Michael Abramson, professor of epidemiology and preventive medicine at Melbourne's Monash University, is a co-author of a report on the ongoing investigation of the health impacts of the Hazelwood blaze.
Abramson urges a national study of the health impacts of the latest wildfires, saying his research focused on a much smaller population of 74,000 people in the Latrobe Valley.
"We're now seeing substantial exposure extending over weeks to cities that have millions of inhabitants, so I think it's very likely that there might be more subtle effects that we haven't been able to detect," Abramson said.