New Year’s Day in Australia got off to a horrible start as parts of the continent were ravaged by bushfires. Navy ships and army aircraft have been scrambled to help fight the fires on the south-east coast that are feared to have killed at least 17 people, amid a spiralling debate over the government’s stance on the climate emergency.
Thousands of people have been forced to abandon their homes and gather on beaches to escape the flames. The fires have been so bad that towns have been plunged into darkness and more than 4m hectares of land have been destroyed.
Thousands of firefighters were still battling more than 100 blazes in New South Wales and Victoria. To make matters worse, new fires are being sparked daily by hot and windy conditions and, more recently, dry lightning strikes created by the fires themselves.
At the end of Australia’s hottest-ever decade, Canberra, the capital, was blanketed in a cloud of dense smoke that left its air quality more than 21 times the hazardous rating and could be seen more than 1,200 miles (2,000km) away, on the South Island of New Zealand, where it turned the daytime sky orange.
Fanned by soaring temperatures, strong winds and a terrible three-year drought, huge blazes have ravaged a tinder-dry landscape, causing immense destruction: since November, more than 900 homes have been lost in NSW alone.
With three months of the summer still to go, the early and devastating start to the country’s fire season has led authorities to rate it the worst on record and prompted urgent questions about whether the conservative government of the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has taken enough action on global heating.
Polls show a large majority of Australians see the climate emergency as an urgent threat and want tougher government action, but Morrison has focused instead on the nation’s response to the bushfire crisis and defending business in Australia, while other government officials have publicly disparaged climate activists.
In his New Year’s Eve address to the nation, Morrison did not make any connection between the bushfires and global heating, suggesting that while they were a terrible ordeal, Australians had faced similar trials throughout history.
Past generations had “also faced natural disasters, floods, fires, global conflicts, disease and drought” and overcome them, the prime minister said in a video message. “That is the spirit of Australians, that is the spirit that is on display, that is a spirit that we can celebrate as Australians.”
On Wednesday, he acknowledged at a reception that the fires were “a time of great challenge for Australia”, but deflected debate about the underlying cause of the fires, concentrating again on the nation’s resilience.