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This article is from the In-Depth Report Wildfires and Climate Change

Death toll climbs in Aussie wildfires

At least 135 people have died and authorities say that more than 200 may have perished in wildfires that have been raging in southern Australia since Saturday. The fires in Victoria and New South Wales have destroyed more than 750 homes and charred 815,000 acres (330,000 hectares), according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The Associated Press reports that more than a dozen of the 400 blazes ignited over the weekend are still burning; arson is suspected.

"What do you say about anyone like that?" Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Australian TV, speaking of the suspected arsonists. "There's no words to describe it, other than it's mass murder."

Wildfires are common in Australia, though not at this number, speed and lethality. But hot, dry weather (it was 113 degrees Fahrenheit, or 45 degrees Celsius, in the days leading up to the fire, according to The Economist), drought and unpredictable winds created the perfect environment for fires to take hold, Reuters notes.

The extreme conditions are spurring calls for tougher climate policies as scientists blame global-warming-causing greenhouse-gas emissions for raising temperatures and keeping them elevated. The Economist notes that in a climate change report delivered to Rudd last year, researchers from Australian National University noted a “general increase” in the risk of fires across Australia’s southeast over the past three decades. Projections in the report showed that fire seasons would likely become longer (starting earlier and ending later) and more intense.

Rudd supports cutting emissions by 5 percent by 2020 (or up to 15 percent if other countries agree to curb their own output), but environmentalists are pushing for at least five times that amount of reductions. Saturday’s fires, writes philosopher Freya Mathews in today’s Sydney Morning Herald, “were the face of climate change. They were the result of the new conditions that climate change has caused: higher temperatures, giving us hotter days, combined with lower rainfall, giving us a drier landscape. …The desiccation of the landscape here is the new reality. It is now our climate. … This is what the scientists told us would happen.”

To learn more, take a look at this ScientificAmerican.com piece on how global warming contributes to wildfires, and our article about how to forecast a wildfire season. Scientists also are starting to understand the behavior of wildfires, which may help fight them better.

Updated at 5:20 p.m. Feb. 9 to correct that the name of Australian prime minister is Kevin Rudd, not Paul Rudd.

Smoke from Australian wildfires blunts mountain views near Melbourne/bovinemagnet via Flickr

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