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Australia’s bushfires are approaching its capital Canberra

Authorities are warning of “ember attacks” amid high heat and winds.

Local residents watch as fire burns to the suburban fringe of the city of Canberra on January 31, 2020, in Canberra, Australia
The Australian Capital Territory declared a state of emergency as bushfires encroach on Canberra amid high winds and heat.
Brook Mitchell/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The ongoing bushfires that have devastated Australia closed in on the country’s capital, Canberra, on Friday as it declared its first state of emergency since 2003.

The Rural Fire Service of New South Wales, the state surrounding the capital, warned of severe fire danger for the Australian Capital Territory, with flames and embers projected to spread well inside the region on Saturday. The territory is home to more than 400,000 residents, and nearly half of it is at risk of “ember attack” and flames.

A map of the fire spread prediction for the Australian Capital Territory for February 1, 2020.
Bushfires are expected to creep dangerously close to Canberra, Australia, this weekend.
NSW Rural Fire Service

The fires are ramping up amid yet another heat wave in the region, with temperatures topping 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Under these conditions, a number of fires will spread and may threaten properties. Embers may be blown ahead of fires and could start spot fires,” according to the NSW Rural Fire Service. “If you’re in one of these areas, you may be impacted by fire. If your plan is to leave, leave early and avoid being in these areas during the heat of the day.”

Forecasters also expect some rain in the region this weekend, but not enough to quench the blazes. In fact, the storms could make fire risks worse. “On Sunday, showers and storms will affect eastern New South Wales and the ACT, but as moisture dissipates, the risk of dry lightning and erratic fire behavior increases, which will be a real concern for major fires in the Canberra region,” said Jonathan How, a meteorologist with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, during a Friday weather bulletin.

Dry lightning has already been blamed for igniting the majority of blazes in Australia’s current bushfire season, which has been unprecedented in its severity.

The fires have claimed 33 lives, including three US firefighters killed in a plane crash. The blazes have torched more than 27 million acres, an area larger than Kentucky, and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Researchers estimate that more than a billion animals may have also perished in the fires.

Beyond the flames, the bushfires have also shrouded major Australian cities in dangerous air pollution. Earlier this month, pollution from fires made breathing the air in Sydney as bad as smoking 37 cigarettes. Tennis player Dalila Jakupovic quit the Australian Open in Melbourne after collapsing in a coughing fit, which she blamed on the dirty air.

The smoke from these blazes is visible from space and has circumnavigated the planet. Health officials are now warning that the capital territory will face heavy smoke this weekend.

The conditions behind the hellish heat and fires across Australia have been building for years. Last year, Australia saw several ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns in an unusual alignment that drove moisture away from the continent and trapped heat. That searing hot weather came atop Australia’s third winter in a row with almost no rainfall, leaving much of the landmass in a severe drought. And climate change is forcing average temperatures in Australia to rise and is causing some of its most densely populated regions to dry out.

Together, these factors left much of Australia covered in dry vegetation that was ripe to burn. The stunning length of the fire season is now stretching resources thin. Volunteers are fighting most of the blazes and many are now several months away from their last paycheck. In December, Australia’s government authorized payments to firefighters, $209 US per day, up to a total of $4,190 per person. Earlier this month, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison formed a National Bushfire Recovery Agency funded with $1.4 billion.

But many Australians remain frustrated with their government’s response to the bushfire crisis and ongoing risks stemming from climate change. Morrison in particular was criticized for taking a vacation to Hawaii during the fires and for failing to heed warnings that a devastating fire season was looming. His government has also been reluctant to acknowledge Australia’s contributions to climate change, particularly the country’s role as the largest coal exporter in the world.

Now with flames encroaching on the capital, Australia’s leaders may have a harder time ignoring the massive disaster and the factors behind it.

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