Record-breaking 4.9m hectares of land burned in NSW this bushfire season | Australia news

A record-breaking area of land has been burned in New South Wales this bushfire season, according to the latest figures released by the Rural Fire Service.

A total of 4.9m hectares – an area larger than Denmark – has been destroyed in the state during the nationwide fire crisis.

The total area burned across NSW, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania has now reached 8.4m hectares – an area larger than Scotland. At least 25 people have been killed, including three volunteer firefighters, and thousands of homes destroyed.

In NSW alone, 4.9m hectares burned was the largest area destroyed in the state since records began, Associate Professor Owen Price from the University of Wollongong said.

According to data collected by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, the previous NSW record was 3.54m hectares burned in the widespread grassfires of 1974–75.

Figures compiled by the 2004 National Inquiry into Bushfire Mitigation and Management record that 4.5m hectares were burned in 1974–75 – higher than the NSW OEH figures, but still below this year’s record.

NSW fires: total area burned

As well as setting a record for area burned, Price said this year’s fires were burning through a large amount of forest, rather than grasslands.

This has made the current fires more devastating, harder to fight and more dangerous to people and to wildlife, he told Guardian Australia.

“The 1974 fires were 4.5m, and that was mostly in the arid and semi-arid grasslands,” Price said. “The actual impact of that was far less. What we’re talking about here is forest fire.

“In forest, the fires are far more intense, they produce far more smoke, they burn far more material, so there is a bigger greenhouse gas output and they take longer to recover. When they reach homes, they are harder to stop.

“Some of the fires in the north of the state in November were going through rainforest. There are areas, say Kanangra national park, west of the Blue Mountains, that has not been burnt in recorded history.”

Dozens of current and former fire chiefs have also described this year’s fires as unprecedented. The RFS commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, said in December this season was “absolutely” the state’s worst on record.

“The biggest fire seasons in the past have burnt about 20% of the forest,” Price said. “But this time it is going to be more than half, which puts animals at a much higher risk.

“It’s a new record by any measure,” he said.

In December, the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, said up to 30% of the koala population on the NSW mid-north coast could have been killed in the fires, and a NSW government inquiry heard from an expert that the fires were so large “we will probably never find the bodies”.

In January, the bureau of meteorology confirmed that 2019 was Australia’s hottest year on record, while the record for the hottest day across the country was broken two days in a row – on Tuesday 16 December and Wednesday 17 December.

In its annual climate statement, released on Tuesday, the Bureau of Meteorology said 2019 was also Australia’s driest with a national average rainfall total of 277mm – the lowest on record.

“The immediate reason [for these fires] is the drought,” Price said. “Basically all the moisture has been sucked out of the landscape and the plants. Then you have to ask the question, what has caused the drought?

“Drought is a natural periodic thing, but the fact that this is the worst drought on record, and we’ve broken temperature records many times this year, is a pretty unequivocal indication that climate change has made this worse.”

According to the OEH figures, 1.96m hectares were burned in 1984-85, and 1.89m in 2002-3.

According to the national inquiry’s figures, which date back to 1926, 4m hectares were burned in 1951-52 and 3.5m in 1984-85.

Price added that Australia only had “good records” for area burned as far back as 1970, and that other written records only go back as far as European colonisation.

“We don’t know anything beyond about 200 years. There could have been big fire seasons before that,” he said.

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