An Australia in flames tries to cope with an ‘animal apocalypse.’ Could California be next?

Scientists estimate that fires have killed from hundreds of millions to more than 1 billion native animals so far in Australia. The toll illustrates that while humans can adapt somewhat to intensifying fires — through better emergency planning, more fire crews and “home hardening” — ecosystems are far more vulnerable.

“Most Australian landscapes are in tune with small-scale summer fires, but not the fires of the proportion and intensity that we are observing now,” said Katja Hogendoorn, a professor at the University of Adelaide’s school of agriculture, food and wine.

“These incomprehensibly large and devastating fires are caused by a combination of lower rainfall and higher temperatures, both consequences of climate change, and here to stay and worsen, unless drastic action is undertaken worldwide,” she said. “As the driest and hottest continent, Australia is at the forefront of this environmental disaster.”

Accurate numbers on animal losses are hard to come by as the disaster unfolds, with some fire officials saying blazes will continue to burn into March. But already the damage to natural heritage has become clear on the island, from the bottom of the food chain on up.

The highly sensitive home of the green carpenter bee — which already is extinct in two Australian states and is a food source for larger animals — faces dire straits. Much of the bees’ remaining habitat on the island has burned and, on the eastern mainland, is in the line of fire, experts say.

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