Wildfires lit up the countryside last week, and this week could be even worse. The fire agency in Australia’s most populous state is warning of “catastrophic” bush fire conditions on Monday and Tuesday for a large area that includes the Sydney metro area. Other states are facing similarly dire forecasts as hot, dry, and windy conditions create the potential for a national bush fire crisis.
The bush fire risk to start the week is nearly unprecedented for the state of New South Wales where firefighters are already battling 67 blazes, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. The fires have consumed 150 homes and killed three people. Smoke from the fires is streaming all the way to New Zealand 4,100 kilometers (2547 miles) away, but conditions are somehow about to deteriorate even further.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology is forecasting hot, dry conditions for Tuesday with highs approaching 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and winds gusting to 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph). That means any fires that do spark could spread rapidly and is why the Rural Fire Service is warning of catastrophic conditions—the worst type of warning—for large parts of the state. The warning system was implemented in 2009, and Tuesday marks the first time a catastrophic warning has been issued for Sydney, Australia’s largest city. The metro area is home to nearly 6 million people, so this is the equivalent of the entire Atlanta metro area facing the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
In anticipation of the extreme fire risk, the government of New South Wales has declared a state of emergency for the next seven days. The state has also closed 575 schools (Queensland to the north has also done the same), and the military has scrambled helicopters and is prepared to assist with battling blazes. For people living in the areas of highest risk, the danger cannot be overstated.
“Homes that are specifically designed and built to withstand bushfires are not done so for catastrophic conditions,” New South Wales Rural Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told CNN affiliate 9 News. “Catastrophic conditions are where lives are lost, it’s where people die.”
Other parts of Australia are also facing serious fire weather this week, though none are as populous as New South Wales. The entire country (save a few parts of Tasmania) faced a day without rain on Monday, the first time in recorded history that’s ever happened. But the current weather is only one piece of the bush fire puzzle. The past 12 months have been among the driest on record for large parts of Australia. The border of New South Wales and Queensland—the epicenter of the fire outbreak last week—is one of the regions hardest hit by drought.
Ditto for interior parts of New South Wales as well as South Australia and the Northern Territory, which include areas that have received anywhere from 0-20 percent of their normal rainfall over the past 12 months. Those same areas have also been anywhere from 1-2.5 degrees Celsius (1.8-4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than normal over the past year. Those two factors have dried out vegetation, priming it to burn when fire weather hits.
Research published by Australia’s Climate Council shows that climate change is increasing the number of days with fire weather. And then there’s the long term warming and drying trend in Australia that’s again being driven by climate change. These factors will unleash more dangerous days like this one as the climate crisis worsens. And with similar trends happening around the world, it could mean already thin resources are stretched even thinner.