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Australia fires create plume of smoke wider than Europe as humanitarian crisis looms

The Independent logo The Independent 1/01/2020 Jane Dalton

Bushfires ravaging Australia have created a plume of smoke thought to be bigger than Europe as food and water shortages threaten a humanitarian crisis.

An area of thick smoke covering nearly 5.5 million sq km (2.1 million sq miles) has started drifting over the Pacific Ocean towards New Zealand.

Antti Lipponen, a physicist and research scientist at the Finnish Meteorological Institute, said the plume was 14 times the size of Japan, and superimposing it over a map of Europe, showed it would stretch from Iceland to Turkey.

a man standing in front of a sunset © Provided by The Independent The size of the cloud symbolised the size of the emergency in southern Australia, where it is feared conditions could worsen further in the next 48 hours.

Forecasters predict very hot and windy conditions for the south on Friday, with temperatures again set to reach 45C or more, and dangerous bushfire conditions for eastern Victoria and New South Wales (NSW) on Saturday.

Pictures: Australia's bushfire emergency

A race against time is under way by the Australian Defence Force to rescue by air or sea thousands of people who have fled to beaches on the country’s south and east coasts, as well as deliver supplies.

Supermarkets were closed and people were queueing for up to three hours to get food in some areas of New South Wales.

On New Year’s Day, it was estimated 50,000 homes were without power, as phone networks were down and fuel ran low.

Some residents were forced to camp on wharves after multiple fires surrounded the town of Mallacoota, cutting off road access. Nearby, 100 people took shelter in a school.

With 18 people dead since the fires started in September and more than 1,000 homes burnt, the blazes have destroyed communities and wiped out wildlife in unprecedented numbers.

“It was like a war zone. Or something out of a movie,” said Paul Murphy, from Lake Conjola.

More than a dozen people were reported to be trapped in the Belowra Valley, inland in NSW, after fires cut off road access to the area and wrecked homes. There were fears 600 cattle would die within days without emergency feed.

Pippa Biglia told The Sydney Morning Herald her neighbour had been killed. “It burned through his place and in a matter of minutes it was at my mum and dad’s house,” she said. “It came from every direction and there was nothing anyone could do about it.”

In the city of Bairnsdale in East Gippsland, Victoria, donations of clothes, blankets and long-life food were being collected for people who had lost everything. More than 200 homes in East Gippsland have been razed to the ground.

Up to 500 million mammals, birds and reptiles – including 8,000 koalas – have been killed, say ecologists from Sydney University, prompting fears entire species of animals and plant life may be lost for ever.

More than 300 baby flying foxes have been abandoned by their mothers trying to survive, experts said.

Jenny Packwood, a wildlife rescuer, told the Herald: “Mothers are abandoning babies at two weeks after birth because there is no food for them. Last week we had 300 come in, and we’ve been flat out feeding since then.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before – we’re calling it a starvation event.”

Other experts told how the wildfires had obliterated all the small creatures that keep forests alive, leaving species such as bats vulnerable to local extinction.

Koala Crisis wrote on Facebook: “Not one carer KC has spoken to has seen bees, insects, grubs, worms, snails, beetles, millipedes, for months. Nothing struggles through the dustbowls which are now covering millions of hectares in all states.

“There’s no grass for the ’roos, no insects for the birds, the leaves on eucalypts are brittle, ensuring starvation for koalas, gliders, possums, birds, insects.”

And government policies were blamed. “It’s very apparent we’re witnessing a deliberate calculated effort by governments to ensure the genocide of our unique, irreplaceable defenceless wildlife.

“There’s simply zero attention on the holocaust of bushfire, drought and climate change impacts.

“No moratoriums on logging, or the commercial slaughter of kangaroos, no halting of massive urban projects wiping out more habitat. No emergency upgrading of legal protection for koalas and other wildlife struggling to survive.”

At Microsoft News Australia we've partnered with the giving platform Benevity to raise funds for Australian Red Cross, St Vincent De Paul Society and The Salvation Army; these organisations are helping communities across the country devastated by bushfires. You can help these organisations by donating here and for the latest news and RFS links visit Bushfire emergency.

The Independent has asked the Australian government to respond.

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