As record-breaking fires rage across southeastern Australia, authorities say they’re rounding up dozens of suspects whom, they claim, started at least 100 fires that eventually led to the “brushfire crisis” that has killed at least 25 people and thousands of animals and may continue to burn for “months.”
“The number of cattle and sheep killed is still being tallied, but the losses are expected to be enormous,” according to National Public Radio. “And the death toll among wild animals is even worse. An ecologist at Sydney University estimates that nearly half a billion animals perished in the state of New South Wales alone.”
Hundreds of people have been evacuated from the fire zone and thousands more are awaiting clearer weather so that they, too, can be rescued. As many as 4,000 residents and tourists in NSW took shelter on beaches over the weekend, Fox News reports, and still at least 300 of those need to be evacuated to safer ground.
Thousands of firefighters have been called in to help manage the blaze, which has already “burned millions of acres in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, an area twice the size of Maryland,” according to Fox News.
The cost of burned homes, buildings, businesses, and farmland — and lost possessions — is incalculable.
The “brushfire crisis” is actually hundreds of separate fires burning at once, though several smaller fires have now merged into what Australian authorities are calling a “mega-blaze” in New South Wales. Weather in Australia has been hot and dry, encouraging the fires on, but this week, some areas got a reprieve, and firefighters have been able to better manage some of the blazes before the temperatures jump up again — a jump expected Thursday.
Many experts — and quasi-experts — have blamed climate change for the increasingly destructive fires that now rage almost yearly in Australia, but at least some of the blazes currently burning were set deliberately by “firebugs,” according to Australian authorities, who have arrested around 100 people who, they say, are responsible for hundreds of small fires that became massive brushfires.
“As firefighters remained on high alert, police revealed 103 of the destructive fires that had lashed Queensland since September were deliberately lit,” Brisbane news reported. “Figures obtained by AAP revealed police had dealt with 98 people – 31 adults and 67 juveniles – for deliberately setting fires.”
“More than 120 fires are still being investigated and more people could be charged,” the outlet added, noting that Queensland has seen hundreds of homes destroyed and thousands of acres of land burned by wildfires just this year, and the typical wildfire season in Australia stretches all the way from September through March, so it’s far from over.
In the states of New South Wales and Victoria, authorities are more concerned with getting the brushfires under control than they are finding the culprit, but many of those fires may have been set deliberately, as well, or could have started as small fires that ultimately went out of control.
The UK’s Telegraph also carried an op-ed over the weekend noting that “green” policies that prevent farmers from doing controlled burns on their property may be part of the reason typical Australian brushfires now regularly rage out of control.
“Heart-rending tweets from the fire zone convey the raw anger of farmers burnt out of their homes,” writer Jamie Blackett noted. “But their interpretation is strikingly different. Far from begging everybody to embrace the green agenda, many are blaming the greens for exacerbating the fires by meddling in the time-honoured practice of burning off excess vegetation to mitigate wildfires.”
For now, though, those affected by the brushfires are more concerned with saving what they can. Monday morning, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, released several billion in additional aid to the fire-ravaged southeast.