3 graphics reveal the unimaginable scale of Australia’s fires

Cattle in a field under a red sky caused by bushfires in Greendale on the outskirts of Bega, in Australia's New South Wales state, on Sunday.

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Cattle in a field under a red sky caused by bushfires in Greendale on the outskirts of Bega, in Australia’s New South Wales state, on Sunday.
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SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

More than half of Australia is choking on smoke, and skies across the country glow orange as bushfires continue to ravage the continent.

Since the start of the bushfire season in September, an estimated 25.5 million acres have burned, according to Reuters, and at least 25 people have died. More than 1 billion animals are feared dead, and an estimated 2,000 homes have been destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to evacuate.

The total damage and economic losses will exceed $100 billion, according to AccuWeather Founder and CEO Joel Myers.

Australia experiences fires during its summer, which runs from December to March, but this year’s crisis – which comes on the heels of a heat wave and prolonged drought – is unprecedented. The fires that plagued the Brazilian Amazon this year, by comparison, burned through 17.5 million acres of rainforest.

The smoke plume from Australia’s blazes is nearly unfathomable in size: 1.3 billion acres of sky are engulfed in ash and smoke that can be seen from space. That’s an area three times the size of Mexico, half the size of Canada, and bigger than the 11 biggest US states combined.

In December, an official in New South Wales said the state was experiencing the “longest” and “most widespread” period of poor air quality in its history.

“I looked out into smoke-filled valleys, with only the faintest ghosts of distant ridges and peaks in the background,” Michael Mann, a US climate scientist who is on sabbatical in Sydney, wrote in The Guardian on Thursday.

Dry conditions in Australia’s bushland, wooded areas, and have made the land ripe for sparks. Australia experienced its driest spring ever in 2019. December 18 was the hottest day in the country’s history, with average temperatures hitting 105.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 40.9 degrees Celsius.

In the past 15 years, Australia has experienced eight of its 10 warmest years on record. Winter rains, which can help reduce the intensity of summer fires, have declined significantly, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

“We used to see hundreds of thousands of hectares burned in bushfires, but now we are seeing millions on fire,” Pep Canadell, the executive director of the Global Carbon Project, told The Herald.

The following three graphics reveal the unimaginable scale of the Australia fires.


Australia’s bushfire crisis has burned far more acreage than other recent fires and even the US’s worst blaze ever.

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Shayanne Gal/Insider

Last year was a year of fire. Blazes cut through 6.4 million acres of the Siberian tundra over the summer, while 2.5 million acres of Alaskan wilderness went up in smoke. More than 100,000 fires started during just 10 August days in the Amazon rainforest.

But Australia’s bushfires dwarf all of those events. In fact, this season obliterates the country’s record for worst wildfire season; that was in 2009, when the Black Saturday bushfires razed 1.1 million acres.


Added up, the burned land in Australia as of Tuesday was about the size of the US state of Virginia.

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Shayanne Gal/Insider

The area of the resulting smoke – 1.3 billion acres – is equal to the areas of Alaska, Texas, California, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon, Wyoming, and Michigan combined.


Nearly 70% of Australia is covered by a haze of smoke.

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Shayanne Gal/Insider

If that smoke cloud were to hang over Europe, it would engulf half of the continent.

The plume has reached as far as South America, and probably the Antarctic, according to the UN World Meteorological Organization.