Wildfires Are Making Australia’s Air Toxic and Have Displaced About 90,000 People

By Emily Cassidy, Amelia Snyder, Tina Huang and Liz Saccoccia
Record fires in southern Australia have blazed over 6 million hectares of mostly eucalyptus forest over the past two months, killing at least 24 people and more than a billion animals.

The fires have forced many people to flee their homes for safety and clouded the air with toxic pollutants. Two datasets on Resource Watch can help us track the toll of the wildfires in near-real time:

1. Air Quality from Open AQ

Wildfires create smoke plumes made up of several hazardous pollutants including dust and fine particulate matter. Fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) is an easily inhalable air pollutant 2.5 micrometers in diameter, four times smaller than dust or pollen. Levels of PM 2.5, which is linked to heart and lung disease and asthma, reached hazardous levels in many locations across southern Australia over the past two weeks.

Air quality data from Open AQ shows PM 2.5 concentrations from three sensors in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, averaged 438 micrograms per cubic meter in the first six days of January. For reference, 250 micrograms is considered hazardous to human health. The average concentration on New Year’s Day was 792 micrograms per cubic meter. Data from Open AQ updates daily on Resource Watch.

2. Human Displacement

About 90,000 people have been displaced by the wildfires since September, according to data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a non-profit that tracks where natural disasters or conflicts force people to leave their homes. More than 86,000 people have been displaced over the past 30 days alone (shown in the map below), according to the data collected from government authorities, international organizations, news media outlets and other entities. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center only tracks the displacement of residents, not visitors or tourists.

More than 86,000 people have been displaced over the past 30 days alone. This map shows displacements for within 30 days as of January 9. Track displacements in near-real-time here.

For comparison, in 2018, 11,000 people were displaced in Australia from natural disasters during the entire year. According to a recent report by the World Bank, more prevalent natural disasters caused by climate change could push tens of millions of people to migrate within their countries by 2050.

Track fires and other natural disasters — and their human impact — with more than 290 datasets on Resource Watch.

Editor’s note: This blog has been updated to reflect the number of people internally displaced as of January 9, 2020. A previous version of the blog stated 18,000 people had been displaced, but the displacement data was updated on January 9 to reflect the roughly 90,000 people displaced.

Header image from NASA’s Terra satellite.