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After Devastating Wildfires, Parts Of Australia Now Face Floods

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

At first, fire ravaged Australia. And now, the latest climate disaster involves water. Summer bushfires scorched more than one-fifth of the country's forests and killed at least 30 people, according to a new report. And now, flash floods in eastern Australia in recent weeks have left thousands without power in parts of Queensland and New South Wales. Julia Holman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is covering the story from Sydney. Welcome to the program.

JULIA HOLMAN: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: How extensive has the flooding been?

HOLMAN: The flooding has been quite extensive. It's been in large parts of the east coast of the country. I must say the scale of the devastation is nothing compared to what we've seen with the bushfires which have happened over our summer. So we had in Sydney a few weekends ago about 50% of the rainfall in a weekend that we had the previous year.

INSKEEP: Wow.

HOLMAN: So that gives you an extent of how extreme the rain has been.

INSKEEP: How does that transform the landscape, that much water?

HOLMAN: The problem that we have is that it's been so dry in large parts of Australia that the ground in places is like concrete. So when the rain comes down, and especially rain at that level, it just can't soak into anything. The ground is - there's no vegetation there. If it's been fire-affected - and large parts of the country have been fire-affected - then there's contamination from the ash. So it can become flash flooding, which can be incredibly dangerous.

INSKEEP: Oh, you're telling me that the fires set the conditions for worse flooding than might otherwise have been the case.

HOLMAN: Yeah. It's a pretty vicious cycle, unfortunately. The rainfall has been welcomed mainly because it has put out these enormous bushfires that we've had. And so the fires have now been extinguished, which is wonderful news. But the rainfall in some parts has been extreme and too much for emergency services to cope with in some cases.

INSKEEP: How has that affected daily life, then?

HOLMAN: Look; in parts where it's really bad, towns are having to be evacuated and roads are closed and entire planes are covered with water. As I said, the rainfall, though, so far isn't too bad. But the problem is if we get more of it, then the ground is really sort of already drenched, and it just sets the conditions for even more flash flooding.

INSKEEP: Now, the fires, of course, affected most directly rural areas, although, of course, we've heard many stories of cities filled with smoke. Are urban areas more directly affected by this flooding as it goes on?

HOLMAN: At the moment, the more rural areas are affected. A couple of weeks ago, it was downtown Sydney that was affected. So the rainfall, you know, while it's welcomed everywhere, the level of rainfall - I mean, basically, Australia is becoming extremes. You know, we're either having absolute drought or intense rainfall. And it just doesn't seem like there's a normal anymore. We're not getting normal rain or normal dry. It's one extreme or the other.

INSKEEP: How is that affecting people's thoughts about the country and the country's future?

HOLMAN: I think there's a lot of concern. I mean, climate change has been a really politically divisive topic here in Australia. But I think this summer has been - our summer has been a massive turning point. People are starting to realize that the kinds of conditions we're going through are really not very livable, you know? Our cities are filled with smoke. Our countryside is a dangerous place.

And I think it's really - you know, the public is starting to become really aware of the consequences of every country, you know, and the level of emissions we're putting into the atmosphere. Whether the government realizes that and chooses to act is another question entirely.

INSKEEP: Julia Holman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation talking with us via Skype. Thanks so much.

HOLMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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