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Thousands of vacationers and locals were forced to flee to nearly beaches in fire-ravaged southeast Australia. Blazes ripped through popular tourist areas, leaving no escape by land, on December 31, 2019.
Sean Davey/AFP via Getty Images

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What Australia’s devastating fires look like on the ground

The bushfires have already burned 13.5 million acres and show few signs of slowing down.

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.

Severe drought, record heat, and strong winds are fueling deadly blazes across Australia, with no end in sight. The smoke from the raging bushfires has bathed many major cities in an eerie orange glow and created apocalyptic scenes of destruction across the continent.

The fires have already torched 13.5 million acres, an area larger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined. Since September, the bushfires have destroyed more than 900 homes, decimated small towns, and killed more than 480 million animals and at least 17 people. The smoke from the fires made breathing the air in cities like Sydney as bad as smoking 37 cigarettes.

Australia’s military was deployed this week to rescue thousands of people in coastal vacation towns trapped by fast-moving flames. Forecasters warn that the flames could spread even further this weekend as more high temperatures and fast winds sweep the country. (At the bottom of this story, find links on how you can help Australia.)

Map of Australian bushfires as of January 6, 2020. Christina Animashaun/Vox

The hellish conditions stem from some unusual weather patterns that converged to bring extreme heat and dry weather across Australia in recent weeks. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has now reported that 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record.

But climate change is also a major factor, exacerbating heat, drought, and fire risk. Australia has warmed by more than 1 degree Celsius since 1910. And while the northern part of the country is getting more rain, the southeast, including its most populated state, New South Wales, is getting drier, heightening the risk of fires there.

Apocalyptic scenes from Australia are surfacing on social media from photojournalists and locals on the ground. They reveal red skies, raging flames, distraught evacuees, and lonely animals. Here’s what they’re seeing so far:

Bushfires near Nowra, New South Wales, on December 31, 2019.
Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images
Bushfires burn between the townships of Bemm River and Cann River in eastern Gippsland, on January 2, 2020.
Darrian Traynor/Getty Images
Local authorities have evacuated thousands of people stranded in the coastal town of East Gippsland, Australia.
Darrian Traynor/Getty Images
A firefighter hoses down trees and flying embers in an effort to save nearby houses from bushfires, near Nowra, New South Wales, on December 31, 2019.
Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images
Residents watch the developing conditions near the town of Sussex Inlet.
Sam Mooy/Getty Images
Gary Hinton stands among rubble after fires devastated Cobargo, New South Wales.
Sean Davey/AFP via Getty Images
Children play at a staging area in Bega, New South Wales, after being evacuated from nearby sites threatened by bushfires.
Sean Davey/AFP via Getty Images
The remains of burnt buildings along Cobargo’s main street.
Sean Davey/AFP via Getty Images
A kangaroo trying to move away from nearby bushfires stands near a residential property in Nowra, New South Wales.
Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images
Cattle are seen under smoke filled skies in eastern Gippsland, on January 2, 2020. Fires across East Gippsland have killed one person and destroyed dozens of properties.
Darrian Traynor/Getty Images
Rural Fire Service firefighters conduct property protection near Sussex Inlet, on December 31, 2019.
Sam Mooy/Getty Images
A horse trying to move away from bushfires near Nowra.
Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images
A firefighter sprays foam flame retardant on a back burn ahead of a fire front in Jerrawangala, New South Wales, on January 1, 2020.
Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images
The remains of a house destroyed by a bushfire outside Batemans Bay, New South Wales, on January 2, 2020.
Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images
A car destroyed by bushfires outside Batemans Bay.
Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images
A tribute for volunteer firefighters Geoffrey Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer, who died in December 2019 when their truck overturned near the town of Buxton, Australia.
Jenny Evans/Getty Images

How you can help people impacted by bushfires in Australia:

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