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Wildfires Continue In Australia


The death toll and the damage from Australia's wildfires continue to grow. One more person has died battling the blazes in the state of New South Wales. The government has taken the unprecedented step of calling up thousands of army reservists to help fight the fires, and it sent naval ships to evacuate stranded residents along the coast. More than 200 fires continue to burn, and thousands of people remain cut off behind fire lines. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the city of Penrith on how the warming climate is fueling these fires.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Like so many parts of Australia right now, Penrith is dried out. Everywhere you look, the grass is the color of faded khaki trousers. Lawns are brittle when you walk on them. A tiny spark or a cigarette butt or a stray lightning strike can cause the turf to burst into flames.

Mark Fennick, his son Henry and their dog Lurch are at a 7-Eleven in Penrith getting Slurpees to beat the heat.

MARK FENNICK: Yesterday, it was 49 degrees. It was absolutely disgusting, you know? It was unbearable, really.

BEAUBIEN: Forty-nine degrees Celsius, or 120 degrees Fahrenheit, making Penrith the hottest spot in Australia on Saturday.

FENNICK: Never seen it before in my life. I lived here all my life so - never seen anything like this before in my life.

BEAUBIEN: Fennick says it was so hot, everyone, including Lurch, spent the day inside. He says the weather is definitely changing.

FENNICK: When I was younger, I used to be really hot in the middle of the day, say, from 11 to 2 o'clock. Now we're finding that it's getting hotter from 3 o'clock to 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock. So it's just completely different. Before, it used to be a bit more humid, a bit of rain. But it's so dry at the moment.

BEAUBIEN: 2019 was the driest and hottest year on record in Australia.

At the local Royal Fire Service (ph) brigade station in Penrith, Paul McGrath says the fire danger rating yesterday was just shy of catastrophic. For three hours late in the afternoon, the relative humidity dropped into the single digits.

PAUL MCGRATH: Which means there's just no air moisture whatsoever. What that does is it totally changes our fire behavior.

BEAUBIEN: The flames move quickly up into the tops of trees and then jump from one tree to another.

MCGRATH: And the fires escalate very, very quickly with that large heat intensity. You get that high smoke cloud. And sometimes the smoke clouds, like it did yesterday over Wollondilly, became pyrocumulus, which means it generates its own weather. And now we're getting lightning strikes coming out of the smoke cloud.

BEAUBIEN: The fires around Penrith are in the nearby Blue Mountains National Park. The drifting smoke makes it hard to see more than three or four blocks in front of you. In other places, it's far worse. There are people who've been trapped for days without power or cell service. There's so much smoke in some places, the skies are an eerie hue of red. In the town of Eden, residents have been sleeping on a wharf so they can jump into the water if the advancing flames sweep into town.

The New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, says this crisis has pushed Australia into unchartered territory.

GLADYS BEREJIKLIAN: The weather activity we're seeing, the extent and spread of the fires, the speed at which they're going, the way in which they're attacking communities who've never ever seen fire before is unprecedented. We have to accept that.

BEAUBIEN: Fire officials say what they really need to get the fires under control is some sustained rainfall. But currently, that's not anywhere in the forecast.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Penrith, Australia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.