by Thomas Lowe
Rain fell across parts of bushfire-ravaged eastern Australia on Thursday and more wet weather was forecast, giving some relief following months of catastrophic blazes fuelled by climate change.
The fires, unprecedented for Australia in terms of duration and intensity, have claimed 28 lives and killed an estimated billion animals.
Sustained hot weather and only very rare periods of light rain in the affected areas have deepened the crisis.
So authorities had been looking forward to this week’s rain hoping it would help contain or even extinguish some fires.
In the state of New South Wales, where many of the worst fires have burnt, there were “good falls” on some blazes early Thursday, the local meteorology bureau reported.
“Relief is here for a number of firefighters working across NSW,” the state’s Rural Fire Service said in a social media post accompanying video footage of rain falling in a burning forest.
“Although this rain won’t extinguish all fires, it will certainly go a long way towards containment.”
Before the rains, there were 30 blazes burning out of control in New South Wales.
Smoke from bushfires had also choked the southern city of Melbourne from Monday to Wednesday, disrupting the build-up to next week’s Australian Open tennis tournament.
However thunderstorms late on Wednesday cleared the smoke, with the wet weather then moving east towards fires in the southern state of Victoria.
“Storms have improved air quality in most parts of the state,” the Victorian Environment Protection Agency said.
More rain was also forecast on Friday and the weekend which, if it does occur, would be the most sustained period of wet weather since the crisis began in September last year.
“This will be all of our Christmas, birthday, engagement, anniversary, wedding and graduation presents rolled into one. Fingers crossed,” the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said early this week in reference to the forecast wet weather.
The fires have destroyed more than 2,000 homes and burnt 10 million hectares (25 million acres) of land — an area larger than South Korea or Portugal.
Australia endures bushfires every year but they started much earlier than normal last year and have lasted far longer.
Forests and farming land were already extremely dry due to a prolonged drought, providing the foundations for the fire crisis when extreme hot weather hit well before the southern summer.
Australia experienced its driest and hottest year on record in 2019, with its highest average maximum temperature of 41.9 degrees Celsius (107.4 degrees Fahrenheit) recorded in mid-December.
Scientists say the bushfires are the type of extreme disaster the world can expect more of as global warming intensifies.
The past decade was the hottest on record globally, the United Nations said on Wednesday.
“What’s happening is persistent, not a fluke due to some weather phenomenon,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which provided one of the datasets for the UN report.
“We know that the long-term trends are being driven by the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”