Australian wildfire smoke obscures skies half a world away

A boat and Sydney's Luna Park are shrouded in haze on Jan. 8, 2020. The wildfires have burned more than 25 million acres, and the death toll has risen to 25.


By BRIAN K. SULLIVAN AND JASON SCOTT | Bloomberg | Published: January 8, 2020

Smoke from deadly bush fires that have devastated Australia has now spread halfway across the world, darkening skies in Argentina and beyond.

As Sydney and Canberra on Wednesday faced another day of toxic haze shrouding the skyline, a U.S. weather satellite captured the smoke crossing South America and spreading out over Buenos Aires before it drifted into the Atlantic Ocean — some 7,328 miles east of Sydney — according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

More than 25 million acres have burned, which is about the size of Indiana and five times larger than Wales in the U.K. The fires are so large they are generating their own weather systems and causing dry lightning strikes that in turn ignite more blazes.

The death toll since the fire season began has risen to 25, with the announcement on Wednesday that a car accident last week that killed a 43-year-old firefighter from Victoria state was caused by the blazes.

The Sydney Opera House and harbor bridge were barely visible on Wednesday through the smoke wafting in from bushfires that have devastated huge swathes of the Blue Mountains and other national parks to the north and west of the city. The air quality in national capital Canberra, which at times has been the worst in the world in recent weeks, was deemed unhealthy by AirVisual.

As Australians awoke on Wednesday, there were almost 120 blazes burning in New South Wales state alone, with about 50 not contained. South Australia state is facing "extreme" fire danger on Wednesday. Authorities are warning that dangerous conditions will return to the nation's blaze-ravaged southeast on Friday, when the temperature in Canberra is forecast to reach 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

More than 1,500 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales alone this fire season and the tally is rising daily as the fires continue to burn and authorities assess damage. The University of Sydney estimates that 480 million animals have been killed by the bushfires in the state since September.

The Australian government has pledged $1.4 billion over two years to assist recovery efforts, focused on repairing infrastructure and boosting mental-health care. Prominent Australian residents, including actor Russell Crowe, called for more action on climate change to mitigate the risks of more devastating infernos.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has faced criticism for his belated response in pooling national resources to combat the fires. He's signaling his conservative government won't toughen policies to combat climate change, which has been blamed for exacerbating a crippling drought that's helped create tinderbox conditions.

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