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Hearings Begin into Australia Bushfire Disaster

FILE - A bushfire burns in Bodalla, New South Wales, Australia, Jan. 25, 2020. Wildfires destroyed more than 3,000 homes and razed more than 10.6 million hectares (26 million acres) since September.

A Royal Commission has begun its investigation into Australia’s devastating summer bushfires. Hearings this week in Canberra have focused on climate change, as well as the impact of the fires on health and wildlife.

Parts of Australia are some of the most fire-prone regions in the world.

The task of the Royal Commission, the nation’s highest form of inquiry, is to help the driest inhabited continent become more resilient to bushfires and other natural disasters.

Experts have told the inquiry that toxic smoke from the Black Summer blazes killed almost 450 people and affected 80 per cent of Australia’s population. The disaster destroyed more than 3,000 homes, burnt more than 12 million hectares of land, and led directly to the deaths of 33 people.

The role of climate change and land management, including the use of controlled burns in the cooler months to reduce the fire threat, is under scrutiny. Also under examination are the government’s responsibilities during disasters to maintain essential services and infrastructure, and the impact on wildlife.

Some estimates have suggested around one billion animals were killed in Australia’s bushfires. Scientists fear that many threatened or endangered species might have been pushed inexorably towards extinction.

Dr. Sally Box, the government’s Threatened Species Commissioner, has told the Royal Commission that vulnerable flora and fauna might never recover.

“There are currently approximately 1,800 species listed as threatened under the EPBC (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation) Act, and more than 300 of these nationally-listed threatened species were in the path of the fire," said Box. "49 threatened species had more than 80% of their known or likely range within the fire extent, and a further 65 threatened species had more than 50% of their known or likely range within the fire extent. And this includes plants and mammals and birds and frogs and reptiles and fish and invertebrates.”

Some experts believe the summer of devastation has signaled the start of a new age of fire in Australia that is driven by man-made changes to the landscape, the use of fossil fuels and global warming.

Hearings at the Royal Commission will continue next week. A final report is due by the end of August when southern Australia will be nervously awaiting the start of the next bushfire season.

The previous season was unprecedented. March 2 was the first time in 240 days that not a single wildfire was burning in Australia.

The blazes have various forms of ignition, including lightning and arson as well as sparks from road accidents and faulty power lines.

Many of the witnesses appearing before the commission are giving their evidence remotely via the internet because of COVID-19 physical distancing regulations.