John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
It's not every day you see a conflagration of this titanic size.
Let this image stand as a testament to the biblical fury of Australia's perennial bushfires: It shows the continent crackling and popping at night with blazes that in the case of one, the Snowy River Complex fire, are as sprawling as the city of Melbourne.
I'm not sure how NASA did the measurements, but the agency assures the conflagration "nearly matches or possibly exceeds Melbourne in size." Seen on February 10 from the high reaches above the planet, the complex's multiple fires might be mistaken for a glowing metropolis blurred by clouds. But down on the ground it's been a forest-eating monster, turning some 390 square miles of vegetation into billowing plumes of smoke that have drifted toward New Zealand, as seen in this satellite shot from Monday:
A long spell of hot, dry weather has primed southern Australia for this kind of outbreak; thousands of firefighters are attacking what at last count were 18 bushfires in Victoria. Wet weather moving in this week will make their job easier, but one guy who lives in the bush and just had his home destroyed told reporters he doesn't think it will bring much respite:
"We shouldn't under-estimate what February will bring," he told reporters at the State Control Centre.
He said deteriorating conditions would be a reality for the remainder of the season.
"We've got such a dry environment. The fuels are available to burn and we don't need all those factors to see an intense fire."
While the gridless city of flame at Snowy River looks frightening, it's not the one to worry about. The bigger threat are wildfires encroaching on Melbourne's borders, as previously mentioned here. NASA has the skinny:
Though it is the hardest to see in these images, the Mickleham-Kilmore fire was the most dangerous. The nighttime image shows why: the glow of the fire blends with lights in towns immediately north of Melbourne. The fire threatened 13,000 people, forced widespread evacuations, and destroyed at least 12 homes. (An additional 14 homes burned down in other fires in Victoria.) By February 13, the Mickleham-Kilmore fire had burned 23,629 hectares (91 square miles) along the northern fringes of Melbourne.
Here's what one of those fires near Melbourne looked like on Sunday. The photo was taken by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service in the area of Gisborne, about 30 miles northwest of the city's central business district:
Satellite images courtesy of NASA