How a mega fire spread toward Sydney

A seagull perches on a sign as a ferry can be seen through smoke haze from bushfires, in Sydney, Australia, December 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Coates

SYDNEY – Ferry services were halted, fire alarms triggered and Sydney’s famous Harbour Bridge and Opera House disappeared from view in a thick, smoky haze this week.

These were the effects of winds that merged a number of bushfires into a single gigantic blaze north of Australia’s largest city.

The bushfires grew to become one huge mega fire, burning over 3,000 square km (1,158 square miles) of land.

This dwarfs California’s largest blaze on record. In total, active fires in New South Wales state have burned over 20,000 square km (7,722 square miles) this year.

Smoke and flying ash have covered Sydney for most of the past week, turning the daytime sky orange, obscuring visibility and prompting commuters to wear breathing masks.

Firefighters believe it will take weeks to subdue the inferno, while air quality index readings in some parts of Sydney on Tuesday were 11 times the threshold considered hazardous.

At least four people have died and more than 680 homes have been destroyed across eastern Australia in these wildfires since the start of November, earlier than the usual start of the summer bushfire season.

Bushfires are common in Australia during the Southern Hemisphere summer, which begins in December, but a three-year drought exacerbated by a warming climate has left much of the continent tinder-dry, laying the ground for the premature onset.

Authorities have also blamed strong winds and suspected arson for the catastrophic damage.

The arid conditions are also hurting the agricultural sector, one of Australia’s main economic drivers, and have sparked widespread protests calling for the government to take stronger action on climate policies.

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