Article: Australia's Bushfires Show Drastic Effects of Climate Change

Climate Change, Wildfires // 10 mins

It's summer in Australia and it's been a season from hell. Raging fires have devastated the continent, scorching a reported 27 million acres and killing 33 people. Bushfires are a part of life in Australia and they're often deadly. But the scale of these fires is unprecedented. Areas across multiple states have ignited. Australian cities have suffocated in smoke, on some days giving residents the worst air quality in the world. And according to one estimate, a billion animals have been killed. Scientists say climate change is transforming Australia's environment, making it hotter and drier, and exposing it to longer, more intense fire seasons. The fires started unusually early in September and when we visited the continent this month, we found that Australia is still burning.

Two bushfires approach a home located on the outskirts of the town of Bargo on December 21, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. David Gray / Getty Images

The fires have devoured forests like rivers of lava. Smoke blanketing the landscape, the skies turning marmalade in the middle of the day. It's been a black summer down under. And it's not over yet. It sometimes feels as if Australia is at war, doing battle with insatiable flames that are fueled by record heat, high winds and a country parched by drought. And this is what's been left behind in towns like Cobargo, five hours south of Sydney, where Marilyn Mills was trapped inside her burning house.

"It started coming up here, just straight and I thought, I'm just gonna burn to death," Mills told contributing correspondent Holly Williams. "And I thought, 'Just die.'"

"You wanted to die at that point?" Williams asked.

"Yeah, if I could have killed myself, I woulda done it in a second rather than burn to death," Mills said. "It was so hot."

Sixty miles away, on the coast, the scenes on New Year's Eve were like a modern-day Dunkirk. The fires forced people to retreat to the beaches, as flying embers gusted across the sand. Greg Mullins, a retired fire chief who is now a volunteer fire captain, was there battling towering flames.

"They actually had to jump into the ocean to escape," Mullins said. "The fires burnt right to the edge."

"Have you ever seen that before?" Williams asked. "People having to shelter on, on the beach and in the water?"

"On a massive scale, over hundreds of miles in, in multiple communities, no. That's just unprecedented," Mullins said. "The wind was howling. When the fire came through, that sounded like a 747 jet landing. So the sounds, the sights, it was just, it was apocalyptic."

Mullins said he'd never seen a blaze move that quickly.

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Published on CBS News on February 16, 2020.