Australia's wildfire crisis: Key numbers behind the disaster

An area adjacent to the Princess Highway is covered with fire retardant that was dropped by a plane fighting massive fires near Jerrawangala, New South Wales, Australia, on Jan 2, 2020.
An area adjacent to the Princess Highway is covered with fire retardant that was dropped by a plane fighting massive fires near Jerrawangala, New South Wales, Australia, on Jan 2, 2020.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Australia is in the grip of deadly wildfires burning across the country, triggering an emotive debate about the impact of climate change in the world's driest-inhabited continent. The unprecedented scale of the crisis, and images of terrified tourists sheltering on beaches from the inferno, have shocked many Australians.

With summer only just beginning and the nation affected by a prolonged drought, the authorities fear the death toll will continue to mount as more homes and land are destroyed. Here are some key details of the crisis:

How many people have died?

Since the fire season began months ago during the southern hemisphere winter, 23 people have died. With six people missing in Victoria state, the authorities fear the death toll will rise. Among the fatalities are volunteer firefighters, including a young man who died when his 10-tonne truck was flipped over in what officials have described as a "fire tornado". Australia's worst wildfires came in 2009 when the Black Saturday blazes left 180 people dead.

How big an area has burned?

Massive tracts of land have burned. More than five million hectares have been destroyed - that's more than twice the size of Wales, and larger than Denmark. In New South Wales state alone, 3.6 million ha of forest and bush have been destroyed, while more than 730,000ha have been burned in Victoria. The fires are so large they are generating their own weather systems and causing dry lightning strikes that in turn ignite more. One blaze north-west of Sydney, the Gospers Mountain fire, has destroyed more than 485,000ha - about seven times the size of Singapore. The scale of the blazes dwarfs the California wildfires which destroyed about 687,000ha in 2018, and about 105,000ha in 2019.

How many homes have been destroyed?

About 1,365 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 the authorities assess damage. Scores of rural towns have been impacted, including the community of Balmoral about 150km south-west of Sydney, which was largely destroyed before Christmas.

What's the economic impact?

 
 

That's still to be assessed. The Insurance Council of Australia says about 4,300 claims worth A$297 million (S$280 million) have been lodged. Consultancy SGS Economics and Planning has estimated that Sydney's economy loses as much as A$50 million each day it is blanketed with a toxic haze from smoke billowing in from the fires. An inquiry into the Black Saturday fires estimated the cost at A$4.4 billion. More broadly, the economy faces pressure from increasingly severe heat and storms from climate change, threatening industries ranging from agriculture to property to tourism. Australia's Climate Council estimates cumulative damage from reduced agricultural and labour productivity might reach A$19 billion by 2030, A$211 billion by 2050 and a massive A$4 trillion by 2100.