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Australia’s catastrophic and relentless battle with bushfires

The devastation from wildfires in Australia is on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. More than 20 million acres have burned, destroying 2,000 homes and killing potentially hundreds of millions of animals, as well as 27 people. Although the entire country has suffered from the fires, New South Wales is currently one of hardest-hit areas. Kylie Morris of Independent Television News reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The devastation from the fires in Australia is on a scale that is hard to comprehend.

    In a moment, William Brangham will talk with a top official there about how the government is responding, but, first, a closer look at the toll.

    More than 20 million acres have burned, killing at least 27 people and destroying 2,000 homes. Hundreds of millions of animals are believed to have died, including thousands of kangaroos and koalas.

    Fires burned across the country last month. At the moment, New South Wales is one of the hardest-hit areas.

    Kylie Morris of Independent Television News reports from the town of Rocky Plain.

  • Kylie Morris:

    Mid-afternoon in the New South Wales high country, and it feels like driving at night. But these fires are so immense, they create their own light and weather.

    We're trailing a strike team, five volunteer fire trucks and a lead car, dispatched to a front-line fire station, the surreal outpost at Rocky Plain. There's concern over a spot fire that could threaten a small group of houses, but behind that is a looming danger.

  • Man:

    that's what they call that the Dunns Fire down in there.

  • Kylie Morris:

    The Dunns Fire is a monster that's already burned through more than 300,000 hectares and is out of control.

  • Man:

    This is on a scale much larger than anything we have seen before.

  • Kylie Morris:

    The demands on the state's nearly 70,000 volunteer firefighters are now relentless. There's fatigue in the air at Rocky Plain, as well as ash and smoke.

    So, are they just constantly in crisis mode now?

  • David Fletcher:

    You just have to set aside other work. I'm farming, so things aren't getting done on my farm, but, well, as it happens, it's all in the path of the fire anyway. So it might all go.

  • Kylie Morris:

    This place seems to encapsulate the battle Australians are locked in against these fires. This place, a band of volunteer firefighters, who normally are nurses and teachers and scientists and farmers, gathering together to fight with meager resources fires on a scale they have never seen in their lifetimes.

  • David Fletcher:

    It's frightening.

  • Kylie Morris:

    Is it climate change?

  • David Fletcher:

    I believe it is. The scientific evidence is overwhelming. I think our present course is madness.

    We have to change the way we produce and use energy. Or, globally, we have to do it. This — Australia with a three-degree temperature rise frightens the hell out of me. This would be the norm.

  • Kylie Morris:

    So, every summer?

  • David Fletcher:

    This would be the future.

  • Kylie Morris:

    Under that scenario, the new normal for a south coast beach, rather than this, could be this. That's not seaweed. It's ash at the normally idyllic Merimbula Main Beach.

    Fierce fires still burning to the south have laced the sand with spidery cinders. There are evacuees here too, who've fled those same fires.

    David Iredale and his wife and their dog evacuated from a bush property near Eden.

  • Man:

    The sky just turned red right around the horizon, 360 degrees, and then it went black. I decided it was time to go.

  • Kylie Morris:

    On the outskirts of Cobargo, the fire's already done its worst, taking the lives of two of its tiny population, father and son farmers. Shops on the high street and houses are gone.

  • Tony Allen:

    Words can't describe the noise and the venom of it and the heat and the ferociousness. It was just awful.

  • Kylie Morris:

    Who were you with at that stage?

  • Tony Allen:

    Only my son, just the two of us. Hard. Very hard. Good boy. Great people here. Heroic people. every house has the same story.

  • Kylie Morris:

    There's a pride here. They have set up the relief center themselves and are taking care of one another.

  • Man:

    Potatoes, bananas.

  • Kylie Morris:

    The center doles out bananas and shampoo and comfort as well.

    Denise works in the post office, and her son Tom on local dairies. The fire drove them out of their house at speed.

  • Denise Williamson:

    All the side of the highway was on fire. A house was there with a light that we drove past. We just knew then, didn't we, that we weren't going to go back to anything.

  • Kylie Morris:

    There was no time to grab even a change of clothes, just a few keepsakes, the passports, some jewelry.

    Are you getting the official support that you need?

  • Denise Williamson:

    We do have to appreciate that resources are stretched incredibly thin over the whole state, and, in fact, over the whole east coast of Australia.

    But they're trying to push the small communities into the bigger towns, so they're only having to worry about the bigger towns. So they're kind of forgetting about us a bit.

    This a water tank for our main's water supply.

  • Kylie Morris:

    This was a house Denise built with Tom's father on land that's been in her family for 50 years. The fire rushed over that hill, its heat so intense, it melted the metal of her decorative doors into a stream of silver.

    But they're recasting their loss into a new beginning.

  • Tom Rowe:

    We're done feeling like this. We just want to start our lives again.

  • Denise Williamson:

    For sure.

  • Kylie Morris:

    As more roads open, they will reveal more difficult truths, the intimate costs of this already catastrophic fire season.

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