Ecologists from the University of Sydney are estimating 500 million animals have perished during Australia’s wildfires. That figure is likely to rise as the deadly fires run through Victoria and the New South Wales (NSW) Coast. On Thursday, NSW declared the fires a state of emergency. As the unprecedented heatwave continues to fuel the flames, the NSW expects the fires to intensify.
Australia has endured this continent-wide crisis since September, and reportedly the flames have formed a ring around the country. At least 17 people, moreover, have been killed with tens of thousands more left stranded. Additionally, the fires torched over 13 million acres, approximately the size of the Netherlands. Along with this environmental officials told the Times that air quality in Sydney is as “bad as smoking 37 cigarettes.”
Concern for entire species of plants and animals has risen as ecologists have estimated the death tolls. “The fires have burned so hot and so fast that there has been significant mortality of animals in the trees,” says Mark Graham, an ecologist with the National Conservation Council. “But there is such a big area now that is still on fire and still burning that we will probably never find the bodies,” he added.
The flames wiped out an estimated one-third of Australia’s most populated Koala habitat. Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation “more will be known when the fires are calmed down and a proper assessment can be made.”
Science for Wildlife executive director Dr. Kellie Leigh told parliament Australia’s wildfires show “just how unprepared [they] are.” She continued by saying, “There’s no procedures or protocols in place — even wildlife carers don’t have protocols for when they can go in after the fire.”
Strong gusts of wind have accompanied the blistering heatwave, worsening the fire risk. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology anticipates wind speeds of up to 60 miles per hour to “push deadly smoke over major cities.” Scientists say unique rain and temperature patterns helped them detect risk factors in advance. Hot and dry weather is likely to persist throughout the rest of Australia’s wildfire and the summer.