Australia’s devastating wildfire season, which spanned from July to March, hit many more animals than previously estimated, scientists said in a new report Tuesday.
The fires caused widespread destruction and mass evacuations in the eastern part of the country towards the end of 2019, killing 33 people in total and destroying more than 3,000 homes.
But the cost of animals was far more devastating, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) commission. Nearly 3 billion animals, including mammals, reptiles, birds, and frogs, were killed or displaced during the wildfire season.
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“The interim findings are shocking,” Dermot O’Gorman, CEO of WWF-Australia, said in a statement. “It’s hard to think of another event anywhere in the world that has killed or displaced so many animals. This ranks as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history.”
In the interim report, 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds and 51 million frogs are believed to have been affected, which is almost three times an earlier estimate published in January.
“When you think of almost 3 billion native animals in the path of the fires, it’s absolutely huge. It’s a difficult number to understand,” said University of Sydney professor Chris Dickman, the scientist who oversees the project for 10 scientists from Australian universities.
Scientists cannot come up with a firm number on how many animals may have perished in the flames. According to Dickman, the chances of the animals escaping the flames “were probably not as good” due to lack of food and shelter, as well as being forced to live in an already occupied habitat.
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In the previous January report, scientists only focused on the states of New South Wales and Victoria. Located on the east coast of Australia and home to the city of Sydney, New South Wales was the worst affected state in the country during the last wildfire season, but there were fires recorded in all Australian states.
Lily Van Eeden, who leads the project, said the latest estimates cover a much larger area of about 11.46 million hectares, an area the size of England.
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“We believe that never before has an assessment been made across the continent of the number of animals that could be affected in Australia or anywhere else in the world,” Van Eeden said in a statement. “Other nations can take advantage of this research to improve understanding of the impacts of wildfires everywhere.”
While the final report will be completed in late August 2020, the recommendations in the interim report include identifying and protecting critical unburned habitat for threatened species, improving fire prevention and management, and establishing rapid response teams to help to species affected by fires.
The Australian government has pledged some $ 35 million for the recovery of wildlife and habitat, but environmentalists have asked the country to strengthen conservation laws, according to the BBC.
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An investigation by the royal commission on the fires should report its findings in October.
The fires began causing widespread destruction towards the end of 2019, which was the hottest and driest year in Australia’s recorded history, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. Authorities told Fox News at the time that the fires were the perfect storm for a number of troubling factors.
The flames damaged World Heritage Areas, including the Blue Mountains and the Gondwana rainforests in New South Wales and Queensland, authorities said.
More than 200 US firefighters were dispatched to Australia to fight wildfires for the first time since 2010. Six firefighters were killed in New South Wales fighting the flames, including three Americans, who died when their C-130 Hercules tanker plane crashed in January.
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The New South Wales Rural Fire Service described the season as “very traumatic, exhausting and anxious” while reporting that the flames had been contained thanks in part to torrential rain, which also brought heavy flooding, damaging winds and dangerous waves.
Lucia Suárez of Fox News and Associated Press contributed to this report.