But when fires get big enough, birds get disoriented by the smoke and heat, while tree hollows transform from shelters into crematoria. That’s been the case in the recent season, as fires have been not only especially intense, but unprecedentedly thorough. Usually they burn patchily, creating a mosaic of scars that act as barriers to future flames and leaving behind unscathed vegetation that acts as nodes for rejuvenation. This season—again, due to unprecedented drought and heat—the fires have “brought down everything across the landscape in one fell swoop,” says Sarah Legge, an ecologist at the Australian National University. “That will make recovery harder.”
“There are also some habitats that are burning that we didn’t think should or would ever burn,” she adds. The subtropical rainforest on the border of Queensland and New South Wales “is not a flammable habitat. It’s evolved over many millennia without fire, and a lot of the species there aren’t resilient.”
The fires are especially devastating because they’re occurring against a long-running backdrop of biological annihilation. The clearing of land for agriculture and urban development has forced species into ever smaller and more fragmented pockets, which can be more easily snuffed out by a single bad event. Introduced predators such as feral cats and red foxes are already huge threats to native species but dine especially well in burned landscapes, where shelter is scarce. All the sins that have been visited upon Australia’s wildlife compound one another.