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World

Powerful Brush Fires In Australia Cause Deaths, Force Evacuations

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How much worse are Australia's bushfires than normal? A map on the website of The Sydney Morning Herald offers some clues. The map shows southeast Australia covered in flames. The flames represent various areas where people are watching fires or getting out of the way of fires or evacuating entire vast areas. Reporters following the fires include The Sydney Morning Herald's Matt Bungard.

MATT BUNGARD: People have been going back to the towns that they've, you know, a day before had been, you know, rich and vibrant and filled with things that they'd known their entire lives and there's just nothing there. I mean, these fires, especially on the south coast in the last week, have ripped through entire towns and left them with nothing. I was speaking to someone yesterday who said that in some of these towns, they've lost, you know, 80% of the structures.

There were towns that were pitch-black at midday the other day, like, because there was just so much smoke in the air that they couldn't see the sun. A lot of people who have been around the journalism game far longer than I have have said that they've never seen anything like this in a previous bushfire season. And we've had some really bad bushfire seasons in the past.

INSKEEP: Can I mention that the color of the sky is, perhaps, the creepiest thing about these photographs? There doesn't appear to be any sun, as you say. And it may be a strange red or yellow color. This must be disturbing day after day after day.

BUNGARD: I mean, it is. I mean, you know, this is - it's like going outside after a nuclear bomb's gone off. I mean, the sky is such a strange color. Like, you don't expect to walk outside at, you know, like 10 o'clock in the morning or something and have the sky be orange, but that's the situation we're living in. And that particular phenomenon isn't just confined to where the fires are. That's a statewide thing. That's something that everyone's been dealing with for weeks now.

INSKEEP: And I feel obliged to mention that when you say statewide, that is the scale of a fairly large country because Australia is so large. We're talking about enormous areas that are affected here.

BUNGARD: Yeah. I mean, to put that in perspective, a area the size of some European countries is burning right now. I mean, I saw a couple of maps, it was like half of the United Kingdom or the entirety of Belgium or - just to put in perspective for people who don't quite realize how big Australia is, just how much land is burning right now. It is just such a massive, massive area that is burning and continues to burn.

INSKEEP: And what's it like as this fire season goes on and on and on? Does it feel different many weeks in than it might have felt a week in, for example?

BUNGARD: In most years, when there are large bushfires, we wouldn't have even had the fire season start yet. So usually, the worst of it happens towards the middle of January and into February. That's when we see the worst of it in most years. The fact that we had bushfires in, you know, early November in parts of the state is crazy. And the fact that they've mostly continued on through all of November and December is unbelievable. We're going to - we're looking at, you know, potentially having a fire season of four to five months. That's nearly half a year.

INSKEEP: And amid all of this, there was an editorial in your paper, The Sydney Morning Herald. And the headline was "Bushfire Tragedy Shows Need For Climate Leadership." How much is the awareness of climate change part of the conversation that people are having in Australia right now?

BUNGARD: I mean, for a very long time, it wasn't a part of the conversation. I mean, this was a government that, for a lot of the time, had denied - was rife in Parliament with climate deniers.

I mean, during the school strikes that were going on around the country - the first big run of school strikes that we had, you know, there were tens of thousands of children out on the streets. And the government's response was to tell them to stay in school, including the prime minister. And this is the same prime minister that brandished a lump of coal in Parliament House a couple of years ago.

But these fires have been so bad that they've prompted at least a somewhat of an attitude shift. We had the deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, who just a few weeks ago was deriding climate protesters as hippies, actually conceding that perhaps climate change did have something to do with what we were seeing right now - which it is a small step, but it is very much a step in the right direction.

INSKEEP: Matthew Bungard of The Sydney Morning Herald. Thank you so much.

BUNGARD: Thanks, Steve, appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.