SYDNEY, Australia (WJW) — A report by the University of Sydney estimates that 480 million animals have been killed since the New South Wales bushfires began in September.
According to a press release by the university, the figure includes mammals, birds and reptiles, many of which “were killed directly by the fires, with others succumbing later due to the depletion of food and shelter resources.”
According to the release, the “authors of the report deliberately employed highly conservative estimates in making their calculations. The true mortality is likely to be substantially higher than those estimated. The true loss of animal life is likely to be much higher than 480 million.”
Australia is being ravaged by the worst wildfires seen in decades, with large swathes of the country devastated since the fire season began late July.
A total of 18 people have died nationwide, and in the state of New South Wales alone, more than 900 houses have been destroyed. State and federal authorities are struggling to contain the massive blazes, even with firefighting assistance from other countries, including the United States.
All this has been exacerbated by persistent heat and drought, and many point to climate change as a factor making natural disasters go from bad to worse.
There have been fires in every Australian state, but New South Wales has been hardest hit.
Blazes have torn through bushland, wooded areas, and national parks like the Blue Mountains. Some of Australia’s largest cities have also been affected, including Melbourne and Sydney — where fires have damaged homes in the outer suburbs and thick plumes of smoke have blanketed the urban center. Earlier in December, the smoke was so bad in Sydney that air quality measured 11 times the “hazardous” level.
The fires range in area from small blazes — isolated buildings or part of a neighborhood — to massive infernos that occupy entire hectares of land. Some start and are contained in a matter of days, but the biggest blazes have been burning for months.
Each year there is a fire season during the Australian summer, with hot, dry weather making it easy for blazes to start and spread.
Natural causes are to blame most of the time, like lightning strikes in drought-affected forests. Dry lightning was responsible for starting a number of fires in Victoria’s East Gippsland region in late December, which then traveled more than 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) in just five hours, according to state agency Victoria Emergency.
Humans can also be to blame. In November, the NSW Rural Fire Service arrested a 19-year-old volunteer member on suspicion of arson, charging him with seven counts of deliberately setting fires over a six-week period.