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Wildfires Continue To Dominate The National Conversation In Australia

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The wildfires burning across many parts of Australia are expected to continue for months. Navy ships are removing people from a town on the southeast coast where nearly 3,000 have been trapped since New Year's. Smoke from the fires has eased in some parts of the country but remains dangerous in others. With all this, it's no surprise the fires are dominating the national dialogue in Australia. NPR's Jason Beaubien is there.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, there's a popular scenic lookout where people can gaze out across a long valley. A couple of hundred yards across a ravine is a three-pronged rock formation called the Three Sisters. A group of sisters who grew up nearby have a tradition of coming here to take a photo of themselves - the three siblings in front of the Three Sisters - but on this day, it's not working. Smoke from the bushfires is so thick, the youngest of the clan, 71-year-old Mavis Powell (ph), says they can barely see the iconic rocks.

MAVIS POWELL: I've never seen it...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It's about the worst that we've seen it.

POWELL: Worst that we've ever seen it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Worst it's ever been.

POWELL: Never seen it this bad ever.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And the heat as well...

POWELL: Yeah.

SHIRLEY TAGGERT: And the heat...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The heat...

POWELL: We've had 40-plus degrees.

BEAUBIEN: Forty degrees centigrade is roughly 105 degrees Fahrenheit. 2019 was the hottest and driest year on record in Australia. Recently, the winds have also been intense. Middle sister Shirley Taggert (ph) says this has made things even harder for the firefighters trying to contain the blazes.

TAGGERT: Because this wind is just blowing this fire further, so they just can't get a hold onto it. And it's just - yeah. It's just devastating.

BEAUBIEN: More than 100 fires continue to burn in the state of New South Wales alone. A hundred thousand people were ordered to evacuate the southeast coast last week to get them away from advancing fire lines. Blazes further south in Victoria have stranded thousands of people on beaches. In the state of South Australia, deadly fires torched one-third of Kangaroo Island, killing thousands of domestic animals and even more wild ones. Other bushfires have trapped truckers on remote stretches of highway in the outback. Mavis Powell says the scale of the fires this year is overwhelming.

POWELL: It's hard to put words into it, you know? You just can't - you can't express what we're all going through in this country, you know? It's just so bad. People everywhere are just devastated.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE FLYING)

BEAUBIEN: Several hours' drive south of the Three Sisters lookout, small yellow firefighting planes are scooping water out of the Shoalhaven River and dropping it on the smoldering hills to the west.

AMANDA FINDLEY: We've been declared a natural disaster area, and we've been declared a natural disaster - I think it was about the 4th of December.

BEAUBIEN: Amanda Lindley (ph) is the mayor of Shoalhaven, which is a community made up of 49 towns and parklands stretching for 75 miles along the coast. Lindley refers to the various surrounding fires burning as the beast.

FINDLEY: So the fire here has burnt through 250,000 square kilometers. So over half of our natural area has burnt now, and that's pretty significant.

BEAUBIEN: The mayor says the crisis has been going on for so long that the city is now trying to simultaneously fight the fires in one area and, at the same time, help people recover from the fires in others.

FINDLEY: So the minute that the fire passes through, then we are in recovery.

BEAUBIEN: Lindley is a member of the Green Party, which has long called for action on climate change. The debate over the reality of climate change here has been, in the mayor's words, toxic. She says this current crisis in Australia is what a changed climate looks like.

FINDLEY: I accept that because I accepted the fact that climate change was a massive part of what we would have to deal with as community leaders a long time ago.

BEAUBIEN: But even if carbon emissions got slashed tomorrow, the dry, hot conditions fueling these fires are likely to continue. Lindley says Australians are resilient.

FINDLEY: But what we can't continue to manage is business as usual. So if we come out of this event, this - you know, this catastrophic fire season for Australia and we try to rebuild our future to look exactly how it was yesterday, then we won't manage.

BEAUBIEN: At least in the short term, they'll manage to adapt and survive, she says, because they have to.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Nowra, New South Wales.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "LINKED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.