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The Latest On The Wildfires Happening In Australia

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Australia is on fire. More than 7 million acres have burned in the last few months. There are hot spots in every state. In New South Wales alone - that's where Sydney is located - more than 100 bushfires are burning, and two firefighters have died. To give us the latest on the situation, we turn now to reporter Matt Bungard of the Sydney Morning Herald. Welcome.

MATT BUNGARD: Hey, Ailsa. How's it going?

CHANG: Good. Thank you for joining us. You're in Sydney right now. Can you just tell us, what are you seeing from there?

BUNGARD: Yeah, so today has been a comparatively better day in sort of the Sydney CBD area in terms of the smoke levels. Over the past couple of weeks, not just the city, but the wider area around the state's been covered in this thick layer of smoke as a result of the bushfires, which are burning now to the north of Sydney, to the south of Sydney and also to the west of Sydney.

So regardless of which way the strong winds are coming, when strong winds are coming, they're blowing smoke all around the city. And even people who, you know, are hundreds of kilometers away from the fires are now being affected by this. It's very much a statewide issue at this point. And it's something that everybody is very aware of and everybody is very concerned about, particularly for those people who are living near these front lines, which, as I said, at this point, are all around the state.

CHANG: And these fires have been burning for months. Can you explain how the situation has gotten so extreme, how these fires have gotten so bad?

BUNGARD: Yeah. So, of course, when you live in a place like Australia, you're going to have bushfires every summer. That's just a part of life. But what we don't usually see is bushfires occurring this early. When you compare this to a couple of the worst examples of bushfires in the last couple of decades, those occurred a lot later in the bushfire season in the early parts of the new year, where it is traditionally supposed to be a lot hotter.

CHANG: And is there any relief expected in the next few days? I mean, what do the rain forecasts look like?

BUNGARD: In a word, no. We will get a very small amount of rainfall over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. After that, there's pretty much no rainfall forecast until the new year. But thankfully, it won't be as hot in the next week as we just saw. We just saw a bunch of heat records around the country being broken for the entire week that's just passed. And thankfully, the worst of that is over. We had the hottest day on record, not just for December - for any time, three days in a row.

CHANG: Meanwhile, as these fires were burning, I understand that Prime Minister Scott Morrison was on family vacation in Hawaii. Did he come back early?

BUNGARD: That point seems to be up in the air. From what I understand, he returned slightly early from the vacation but that he was scheduled to return just before Christmas anyway, which is fine. And this is the interesting thing because nobody would argue that everybody's entitled to a break. But I think the main issue that people had was the timing of the break and the fact that he left while this was happening. Like, this wasn't something that sprung up while he was overseas and he rushed back. This was an ongoing thing.

CHANG: For months.

BUNGARD: Yeah. And a lot of the times when leaders are scrutinized, we might be guilty of - people, especially people that are very incensed (ph) with the news, we might be accused, you know, of sort of being in a bubble and that the average person simply doesn't care about these things that we think are very important. But we have this term in Australia called the pub test. Does this pass the pub test? And that's basically, would a person at a pub approve of what the politician is doing? And these actions well and truly do not pass the pub test.

CHANG: Well, I'm curious. I mean, you mentioned the record heat wave that is happening in Australia right now. Has the prime minister said anything about the connection between these just extreme fires and climate change?

BUNGARD: Well, no. Obviously, I've been speaking to a lot of meteorologists and firefighters and other people over the past few weeks, and this is a point of frustration. As for the prime minister himself, crisis talks have been arranged with fire chiefs for March. It doesn't really feel like...

CHANG: That there's an urgency - there's sufficient urgency.

BUNGARD: Yeah, exactly right. And it has been a point of frustration for a lot of people. I mean, at our last election, most pre-polling showed that environment was the No. 1 issue for voters. And yet, it remains when there's a crisis happening, we get told, oh, no, no; this is not the time. You know, these people are fighting for their homes. They're fighting for their lives. We'll talk about this later. But for a lot of people, they're thinking, well, you know, if not now, when? When else would you like to talk about this?

CHANG: Journalist Matt Bungard speaking to us from Sydney, Australia. Thank you very much for joining us.

BUNGARD: Thanks, Ailsa. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.