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Wildfires Rage In Australia


Australian authorities are calling fire conditions there catastrophic. Bushfires have burned millions of acres and continue spreading in extreme heat. Two volunteer firefighters died yesterday when a falling tree caused their truck to overturn. Australian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Julia Holman is in Sydney and joins us via Skype. Welcome to the program.

JULIA HOLMAN: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: What's it like to be in Sydney right now?

HOLMAN: Well, look. There's been thick smoke blanketing Sydney now for weeks. When the sun comes up in the morning, it's red. It's difficult to let your children go outside. It's - this - it's summertime here in Sydney. It should be a lovely time of year, but it's just been a really uncomfortable place - and - to be in. And there are bushfires not too far away from where we are.

INSKEEP: When you say not too far away, how near are those fires, and what do you see when you go there?

HOLMAN: Look. Just an hour away from Sydney, by car, there are bushfires that are - that are at - that are absolutely enormous. You know, we're talking about half the size of Sydney city itself. These bushfires are incredibly dense. The fires are out of control. There is no human capacity to put them out.

Firefighters are praying for rain, as is the rest of the country. But we're in the grip of the worst drought here in history. So there's no capacity for the firefighters to put those fires out, you know, no matter how much human effort is put into them.

INSKEEP: How extreme is the extreme heat? I mean, you do have some heat in Australia regardless, right? But this is even worse than normal.

HOLMAN: Well, we've just had not - we've had the hottest day on record, which was Wednesday. And then on Thursday - we had, the next week we had - that record was broken. So it was Thursday was the hottest day on record. We're expecting now tomorrow, Saturday, will be the new hottest day on record.

Temperatures in parts of the country have been the equivalent of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In Sydney, it was over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. We're expecting those conditions tomorrow. This heat is extreme, and it is so dry. And there's just nothing on the horizon that looks like these fires are going to be put out.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should feel lucky that more populated areas have not been destroyed. Hundreds of homes have been destroyed over a period, I know, but 7 1/2 million acres is not that many homes, I guess. Can you just describe what the landscape, what the landscape is like, what is growing there, what it looks like normally and what it has become as the fires have spread across it?

HOLMAN: I mean, Australia is a country that is accustomed to drought. We have droughts fairly regularly in this country. But the - everything is so brown. When you drive down the highway, which I did today to come back from these bushfires, everything - there's ash that's falling onto the highway.

The trees are like paper. So one little spark and they just go up. You know, it doesn't take very much for these fires, which would not ordinarily take some effort to go up in flame or, you know, or not very - basically, they're able to go up with the smallest spark.

INSKEEP: Ms. Holman, thanks for the update, really appreciate it.

HOLMAN: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: And be safe, please. Julia Holman is a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and joined us via Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.