Sustained by drought and high temperatures, the Australian wildfires spread rapidly across the country, destroying 1,000 homes and killing 24 people since September, according to USA Today.
Since Jan. 7, nearly 32,400 square miles have been destroyed by wildfires. In perspective, this covers an expanse 5,000 square miles larger than the Amazon wildfire grounds in 2019, and 80 times larger than the wildfires that tormented California in 2019, according to NBC News.
An ecologist at the University of Sydney estimated that half a billion animals perished in the fires, but since then, he reported that the number soared to 800 million just in New South Wales (NSW) and over one billion nationally.
“I think there’s nothing quite to compare with the devastation that’s going on over such a large area so quickly,” University of Sydney professor Chris Dickman told CBS News. “It’s a monstrous event in terms of geography and the number of individual animals affected.”
The World Wildlife Fund Australia agreed with Dickman’s estimate. The organization said that the wildlife will take decades to recover from the fires and many species “may have tipped over the brink of extinction.”
“This heart-breaking loss includes thousands of precious koalas on the mid-north coast of NSW, along with other iconic species such as kangaroos, wallabies, gliders, potoroos, cockatoos and honeyeaters,” said the World Wildlife Fund Australia to CBS News.
Dickman also said that some of the animals in his estimate will not be directly killed by the fire. Many have taken shelter but will emerge in an environment unable to sustain them or exposing them to new predators.
In 2007, researchers found that clearing 1.6 million acres of forest would result in the deaths of around 104 million animals. Using this data, Dickman came to his estimate after 7.4 million acres were burned. Within a week, that number had doubled.
Because of the severity of the fires, police have taken legal action, accusing 200 people for starting the fires. This includes 24 people who have been accused of deliberately starting fires, 53 for ignoring the fire ban and 47 for carelessly throwing a lit cigarette or match according to New York Post.
Deputy NSW Police Commissioner Gary Worboys told USA Today that while not all of the fires were intentionally started, there is zero-tolerance to any fire activities because of the severity.
However, a NSW Rural Fire Service spokesman told Sky News that most of the fires in NSW were started by lightning, and only a small percentage of the flames were started by arson.
The fire season in Australia usually starts in December and lasts until March, but because of temperatures up to 120 degrees, droughts and high winds in 2019, the fires began earlier.
Since the start of the fires in September, insurers have received 9,000 claims in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, according to the Insurance Council of Australia CEO Rob Whelan. In USA Today, Whelan said claims have reached $450 million in U.S. dollars and only 20% have been paid.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in a statement on January 6th, that the government will be committing an extra $1.4 billion toward the recovery fund, saying the government will do “whatever it takes” to stop the fires.
Twenty-five million dollars have already been given to affected communities by The Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment and Disaster Recovery Allowance, and The Commonwealth and New South Wales governments have given $86 million.
“It’s a long road ahead and we will be with these communities every step of the way as they rebuild,” Morrison stated.