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From space, the ferocity of Queensland’s bushfires is revealed

In the face of an unimaginable bushfire threat, emergency agencies delivered a dire warning: evacuate now or burn to death.

For many, it was a signal that last week's unfolding emergency would be unlike any fire Queensland had faced in recent memory.

In a perfect storm of extreme heat and fierce winds, fires erupted across a huge stretch of Queensland.

Properties were razed and entire towns were almost wiped off the map.

The fires were so intense they even penetrated rainforests — a phenomenal occurrence which has astounded and alarmed fire scientists.

"Rainforests are non-burnable. That's one of their distinguishing features. So if a rainforest is burning, that's really significant," said David Bowman, Professor of Pyrogeography and Fire Science at the University of Tasmania.

But it's hard to get a sense of just how massive the unfolding disaster was. That is, until you see it from the sky.

Satellite imagery and data captured over Queensland in recent weeks gives us a different perspective of the bushfires. It highlights not only the unprecedented nature of this natural disaster, but also the incredible role firefighters played in protecting vast numbers of properties.

This was Deepwater National Park in Central Queensland last week.

By blending a natural colour image with infrared emissions captured by the European Space Agency's Sentinel 2 satellite, we've highlighted the active fire fronts and hotspots in bright orange.

To the west of one of these fronts, we've identified some of the hundreds of structures within just kilometres of the fire.

This image, posted by firefighters, lines up almost perfectly with the time the satellite imagery was captured. We've highlighted some trails to give you a better idea of the location. It puts the huge scale of this fire into perspective.

Skip forward to December 1 and we can see the vast areas of burnt-out land.

At least 45,000 hectares of land was scorched by fire here. Firefighters have reported flames stretching 20 metres into the sky.

NASA active fire data captured each day for seven days shows the scale of this fire.

This was just one of nearly 200 fires authorities said were burning across the state.

No matter where you look, plumes of smoke are visible.

But it wasn't just the massive fires causing headaches.

A relatively smaller fire burning to the west of Gracemere quickly became the number-one priority for authorities.

With 50km/h winds battering the area and a landscape of highly flammable dried-out land, catastrophic fire conditions were declared in this region.

As embers began attacking the town, fire simulation technology, which is rarely seen by the public and shown here in red, predicted the fire would burn through the heart of the town if nothing was done, prompting the immediate evacuation of Gracemere.

"That [simulation] guides our strategies and tactics. There were a lot of fires going on that day and this became our number one priority, very quickly," said Andrew Sturgess, manager of the predictive services unit with Queensland Fire and Emergency Services.

"It had the potential to race right into Gracemere."

Using water bombers and crews on the ground, the fire's path was stopped at the edge of town. There was property damage but firefighters managed to prevent the worst-case scenario.

Just west of Gracemere in Kabra, this high-res satellite imagery shows just how close this fire came to homes.

Fire scientist David Bowman said he was astounded by the scale and intensity of the Queensland bushfire emergency.

But what really caused him concern are the fires further north, near Mackay, which have penetrated the region's rainforests.

"I know of no comparable event in scientific literature," he said. "This isn't a fire burning into the edge of a rainforest and stopping. This is a fire that seems to be burning through rainforests. And we're seeing fires of astonishing intensity."

This is the imagery that has Professor Bowman and his colleagues so alarmed.

The area highlighted in green is classified as tropical and warm-temperate rainforests.

If we overlay fire hotspots captured in the past 30 days, you can see areas where the fire has burnt well inside the rainforest (these dots have a green tint).

"For them to be burning up is telling us just how extreme the fire weather conditions are, how stressed the vegetation is," Professor Bowman said.

Rainforest boundaries NewAsset 8MackayEungella FiresCathu State Forest FireNew Fire danger Gracemerefire test_1

Imagery: ESA/Sentinel 2

Imagery: DigitalGlobe/Maxar

To get a better sense of just how extraordinary the fire conditions were, Professor Bowman's colleague Grant Williamson analysed the fire danger rating of the past two weeks and compared that to the same period over more than a century.

The results were remarkable.

In the three areas he examined — Mackay, Rockhampton and Gladstone — the fire danger was above anything ever recorded in the previous 110 years.

"Truly indicating this is a once-a-century kind of event, at even a conservative estimate," Dr Williamson said.

Professor Bowman, who has spent most of his career studying rainforest boundaries and fires, has visited all the stand-out fires events that have taken place in the world over the past few years.

What took place in Queensland, he believes, is entirely consistent with fires in other parts of the world, both in intensity and their links to a changing climate.

"It all ties together as being this signature of a warming, drying climate that makes vegetation burn but, more worryingly, burn in a way that is really outside our mainstream experience. So we're on a learning curve."

"This is the terrestrial equivalent of ice sheeting breaking up."

Andrew Sturgess of QFES said the events of the last couple of weeks are evidence that the warnings of more frequent and more extreme fires caused by climate change had arrived.

"From a fire perspective, Queensland has changed. Australia has changed."

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