Source: Carbon Brief
Australia is currently experiencing one of its worst bushfire seasons, with swathes of the southern and eastern coastal regions having been ablaze for weeks.
As the fires have spread, there has been extensive media coverage both nationally and internationally documenting – and debating – their impacts.
There has also been widespread criticism of Australian leaders’ handling of the situation, particularly in the context of the government’s poor record on climate action. The fires come at the end of the nation’s hottest and driest year on record.
Below, Carbon Brief summarises how the fires – and the political response to them – have been covered by the media.
The article is split into six sections:
- What is happening in Australia?
- What role does climate change play in the fires?
- What other factors are involved in the fires?
- How do the fires compare to past events?
- What has the political impact of the fires been?
- What has the media response been?
What is happening in Australia?
This year’s bushfire season is widely regarded as one of the most severe on record. Since September, fires have spread across much of southeastern Australia following a period of extreme drought and record-breaking temperatures.
By the beginning of 2020, around six million hectares had been burned, mainly in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. The affected area has been described by various publications as roughly twice the size of Belgium, Maryland or Wales.
On 7 January, this area had expanded to more than 10 million hectares or “an area the size of South Korea”, according to Reuters.
Dozens of people have been killed by the fires and thousands of buildings have been destroyed. Bloomberg reported that the infernos have “cut-off communities, destroyed hundreds of homes and shocked the world with images of holiday-makers forced to shelter on beaches”.
According to HuffPost, ecologists at the University of Sydney estimate more than one billion birds, reptiles and mammals in New South Wales alone are likely to have died in the rapidly spreading wildfires. ABC News reported that tens of thousands of livestock are also likely to have been killed.
After the fires had already burned for around three months, NBC News noted that, despite thousands of firefighters battling to contain the blazes, “many continued to burn out of control, threatening to wipe out rural townships and causing almost incalculable damage to property and wildlife”.
With more than 100 separate fires burning at once, air quality across the region has also been affected. The Financial Times reported that a public-health emergency has been declared.
As the new year began, the Australian capital city of Canberra registered the worst air quality reading in the world. The Canberra Times reported that smoke billowing through the city had raised its air quality index reading to 20 times above the level considered hazardous.
The fires in Australia are happening on such a scale that their effects are even being felt beyond its borders. Across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand, BBC News reports that smoke from Australia had turned the skies an “eerie” yellow.
What role does climate change play in the fires?
Much of the media coverage has discussed the different factors that have driven the extreme fire season, with climate change coming up as a prominent theme.
“Wildfires need four ingredients,” explained Prof Nerilie Abram, a climate scientist at the Australian National University, in a piece for the Scientific American: “Available fuel, dryness of that fuel, weather conditions that aid the rapid spread of fire and an ignition.”
Climate change plays a role because it is “making Australian wildfires larger and more frequent because of its effects on dryness and fire weather”, she noted. A BBC News “very simple guide” made a similar point:
“While fires are a natural part of the Australian weather cycle, scientists have long warned that this hotter, drier climate will contribute to fires becoming more frequent and more intense.”
According to ABC News, the fires come at the end of Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. Data from the Australian government Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) shows that annual average temperature “was 1.52C above the 1961-90 average of 21.8C”, said the article – putting it “well above” the previous hottest year in 2013 of 1.33C above average.
As does a second tweet in which Hawkins shows how the December of 2019 would be a “normal” year for Australia in a world that is between 2.5C and 3C warmer than average.
Average temperature was not the only record to be broken in 2019, ABC News added. The daily average maximum temperature of 30.69C was more than 2C above the long-term average and “smashed” the previous record of 30.19C set in 2013. And the average national rainfall total of 277mm was “well below” the previous record of 314mm set in 1902, the article said.
Climate change is bringing “longer and more frequent periods of extreme heat”, said a piece in the New York Times, which “worsens these conditions and makes vegetation drier and more likely to burn”. It added:
“A changing climate has meant an increase in temperatures in the Indian and Southern Oceans, which in turn has meant drier and hotter weather across Australia this summer.”
The “unprecedented wildfires” have been “supercharged thanks to climate change, the type of trees catching fire and weather”, said a Q&A by Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press. “What would have been a bad fire season was made worse by the background drying/warming trend,’’ Dr Andrew Watkins, head of long-range forecasts at the BOM, told Borenstein.
Animated history of Australia’s national average temperature and precipitation.
— Robert Rohde (@RARohde) January 4, 2020
“It means more fuel is available to burn, which means higher intensity fires, which makes it more difficult – or impossible – to put out.”
Fire authorities measure the risk according to the Forest Fire Danger Index, a combined measure of temperature, humidity, wind speed and the availability of dry fuel, explained the Guardian. The Australian spring of 2019 was the “worst year on a record going back to 1950 for bushfire risk”, the article added.
In addition, the Guardian noted that a recent study had identified a “clear trend toward more dangerous [fire] conditions during spring and summer in southern Australia”. Another study concluded that “extreme temperatures that helped drive historic 2018 bushfires in north Queensland were four times more likely to have happened because of human-caused climate change”. A piece in the Conversation, published in September, described some of the recent studies that link climate change to Australia’s hottest year on record.
Finally, there has also been coverage of how the fires themselves can contribute to climate change. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that in the three months the fires had burned, they had “spewed as much as two-thirds of the nation’s annual CO2 emissions”.
Scientists told the paper it could be up to a century before forests reabsorbed what had been emitted over the course of the season. Articles in the Guardian, Reuters, E&E News (via Scientific American) and Time all picked up on the CO2 emissions from the fires.
What other factors are involved in the fires?
While the link between the current extremes and anthropogenic climate change is – in the words of Prof Nerilie Abram – “scientifically undisputable”, there are also other reasons why the fire season has been so dramatic. Or, in the words of the Daily Express, the “Australia fires have been extra bad in recent months due to a combination of factors”.
For example, one factor in Australia’s long-term decline in winter rainfall is the positive trend in the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), explained Abram in her Scientific American article. She said:
“This change is causing the westerly winds that circle the Southern Ocean to shift southward toward Antarctica, causing rain-bearing winter cold fronts to pass south of the Australian continent. The role of anthropogenic climate change in driving this trend in the SAM is also clear in the science.”
However, as the video below from Australia’s BOM explains, the SAM has the opposite effect in the southern hemisphere summer. And the recent spell with SAM in its negative phase has brought dry air from Australia’s interior to eastern regions. This pattern results in below average rainfall, the video explains.
Another large-scale climate fluctuation has contributed to the extreme conditions, noted Australia’s CBS: The ongoing drought “is due in part to a typical weather pattern called the Indian Ocean Dipole” (IOD), it said.
Vox described the IOD as “the cycle of the temperature gradient between the eastern and western parts of the Indian Ocean”. This year there has been a record positive IOD, said CBS News meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli, with warm water in the western part of the Indian Ocean and cooler-than-normal water in the eastern part. He added:
“So we end up with rising air over the western part of the ocean right near Africa. That causes rain. But sinking air, dry air in the eastern part of the Indian Ocean – that causes Indonesia and Australia to dry out.”
The IOD has been in its positive phase for “the past two years”, said the Washington Post. The BOM said it was unusual to have back-to-back years with a positive dipole, the paper added. Here again “climate change is part of the story”, noted Abram: “Anthropogenic warming is causing positive IOD events to become stronger and more frequent.”
In the video clip below, Prof Michael Mann – distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State – explained to ABC News how natural fluctuations can add to the climate change signal.
Both the IOD and SAM have recently shifted “towards neutral”, reported the Guardian. However, the damage they have caused would likely remain for several months, Dr Watkins told the paper:
“The damage from the positive IOD and the negative SAM has been done – the landscape is extremely dry. This means that fire danger will remain high for some time…And it certainly does not mean the end of the drought – that will take some time; many months, especially for those rivers to rise again and for the soils to even reach average wetness.”
Another contributing factor has been a “rare phenomenon called sudden stratospheric warming (SSW) that took place in Antarctica”, noted the Times. Back in September, “winds circling the South Pole about 30km high in the stratosphere went into reverse causing the temperature of the stratosphere to rocket by 40C”, the article explained.
This “added to the hot dry conditions by shifting the westerly winds, which usually lurk over the Southern Ocean, up onto the continent”, said ABC News.
Strong winds have also played a substantial role. The Daily Telegraph said the extreme conditions “have been accompanied by brisk winds which fan the flames and push the smoke across Australia’s major cities”.
The most dangerous fire days occur when hot, dry air blows from the desert centre of the continent toward the populous coasts, explained the New York Times:
“A weather front – where air masses at different densities meet – can cause the direction of the wind to change rapidly. Ultimately, that means bigger fires spreading in multiple directions.”
These various factors have combined to push bushfires into new areas, said Greg Mullins, former commissioner for Fire and Rescue for New South Wales. In an interview on National Public Radio’s (NPR) “Weekend Edition Saturday” in the US, Mullins said:
“As fire chiefs, we’ve been watching the wildfire situation, our cyclones, our hurricanes, our storms, our floods get worse and worse as extreme weather just gets more and more extreme. So we have areas burning in Australia that have never burned before. We have trees in Tasmania – Huon pine – so they’re 3,000 years old. They have no fire scars on them. We have tropical rainforests burning.”
Despite the focus on the weather and climate change, in a press conference on 4 January, prime minister Scott Morrison said the “most constant issue that has been raised” with him during visits to fire damaged areas was “managing fuel loads in national parks”. He added:
“As is often the case, those who, on one hand, say they are seeking those actions on climate change, which we’re delivering, can, on the same hand, also be those who don’t share the same urgency of dealing with hazard reduction.”
Hazard reduction is “the management of fuel and can be carried out through prescribed burning, also known as controlled burning, and removing trees and vegetation, both dead and alive”, explained the Guardian.
But the “claim of a conspiracy by environmentalists to block hazard reduction activities has been roundly rejected by bushfire experts”, the article added. The Guardian ran a factcheck on this issue back in November, in which Prof Ross Bradstock, the director of the centre for environmental risk management of bushfires at the University of Wollongong, said: “These are very tired and very old conspiracy theories that get a run after most major fires. They’ve been extensively dealt with in many inquiries.”
In the video clip below, the Australian news and current affairs programme The Project explained how hazard reduction is carried out.
(Amidst all the coverage of the Australian fires, BuzzFeed News has been keeping track of “all the bullshit spreading online”. This “false and unverified information” includes that the fires were being started by environmentalists to promote awareness about climate change, and allegations the fires are an effort to clear a corridor for a high-speed rail track.)
Morrison also defended the Australia’s climate policy and coal industry in response to a tweet from Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, reported Deutsche Welle. “We’ll do in Australia what we think is right for Australia…I’m not here to try to impress people overseas.”
Much of the media coverage has also picked up on the role of arsonists in the fires. Picking up on a story in the Australian, the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported that “hundreds of Australians have been arrested for allegedly deliberately lighting Australian bushfires in only a matter of months”.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that New South Wales police has “taken legal action against 183 people so far this bushfire season, including charging 24 people with deliberately lighting bushfires”. It added:
“Since November, police have also taken legal action against 53 people for failing to comply with a total fire ban and against 47 people for discarding a lighted cigarette or match on land.”
A Brisbane Times piece reported that “103 of the destructive fires that had lashed Queensland since September were deliberately lit”. The police “had dealt with 98 people – 31 adults and 67 juveniles – for deliberately setting fires”, the outlet noted.
Many outlets, including BBC News, the Daily Telegraph and CNN, reported on the 19 year-old volunteer firefighter who was charged on seven counts of deliberately lighting fires. The fire service in New South Wales “described the alleged acts as the ‘ultimate betrayal’ to crews already under immense strain”, said BBC News.
Despite the media coverage of arson, it is not the main ignition source for fires, which – as ABC News and the Guardian noted – tends to be dry lightning strikes. And where people are the cause of fires, it is “usually accidental, from cars and trucks and power lines”, noted the Associated Press.
In addition, a number of outlets – including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Quartz, National Geographic, Hill and Sun – have reported on how the fires have been large enough to generate thunderstorms and lightning by themselves. The Washington Post said:
“Among the many apocalyptic scenes from the Australian bushfires has been the presence of explosive, towering clouds appearing in the skies above the fire zones of southeastern Australia. These clouds, the most fearsome of which is known as pyrocumulonimbus, or pyroCb for short, are fire-generated thunderstorms.”
It’s a mixture. There are a lot of fires. The majority of them are from natural sources, some are arson. But, the point is, the real news story isn’t what started them, it’s the climate conditions that created the environmental conditions that have allowed them to burn.
— Alternative NOAA (@altNOAA) January 7, 2020
Finally, Prof Katharine Hayhoe – a climate scientist at Texas Tech University – pointed out on Twitter, while arson is a factor, it should not be used to distract from the “threat multiplier” of climate change.
How do the fires compare to past events?
Some commentators have been quick to point out that Australia has always experienced severe bushfires.
However, a factcheck by the Guardian reported that, in some of Australia’s worst-affected regions, this year’s fires are the largest seen for several decades.
The total area burnt by fire in New South Wales in 2019 was the largest seen in a year-long period since 1984 – when the region experienced severe bushfires sparked by lightning strikes on Christmas Day, according to data reported on by the Guardian. However, it is worth noting that this year’s fire season will continue to run until February.
The worst year for bushfires for NSW in terms of area burnt was 1974, according to the data. However, it is worth noting that the drivers of this year’s bushfire differ from those of the large events seen in the past, the Guardian said:
“Scientists say fire conditions today are fundamentally different, and fundamentally worse in many ways, when compared with some of the fires experienced in the past.”
In 1974, the fires burnt through largely remote areas with green, non-woody vegetation, the Guardian says. Vegetation growth had been boosted that year by above-average rainfall, it continues, providing ample fuel for the spreading fire.
In stark contrast, this year’s fires in NSW have been fuelled by a severe lack of rain, which has left vegetation dry and more likely to catch alight.
Similar history of the changes in temperature and precipitation since 1910, but this time for just the state of New South Wales, Australia.
— Robert Rohde (@RARohde) January 4, 2020
In addition, this year’s fires could be considered “the most destructive ever” in terms of how many people have been affected, CNN reported.
A second CNN story pointed out that there is still some time to go before the fires come to a close:
“Australia is only just entering its summer season. Normally, temperatures peak in January and February, meaning the country could be months away from finding relief.”
The Atlantic reported that the scale of Australia’s fires far surpasses that of the fires seen in the Amazon in 2019 and in California in 2018. Staff writer Robinson Meyer said:
“Over the past six months, Australian fires have burned more than twice the area than was consumed, combined, by California’s 2018 fires and the Amazon’s 2019 fires.”
In its annual forest outlook, Mongabay described 2019 as “the year rainforests burned”. The round-up compares forest loss from fires and deforestation in 2019 in regions including Brazil, the Congo, Indonesia and Australia.
What has the political impact of the fires been?
The fires have prompted significant criticism of Australia’s coalition government and, in particular, prime minister Scott Morrison.
The Australian leader was widely condemned for remaining on a family holiday in Hawaii as the fires spread across the country. He ended up issuing an apology and returning after two volunteer firefighters had died.
Widely circulated footage captured by ABC News saw angry residents of the bushfire-hit town of Cobargo confronting Morrison during a visit.
There has also been anger directed at regional leaders. The Canberra Times reported on accusations by the New South Wales firefighters’ union that the territory’s government led by premier Gladys Berejiklian had cut almost $13m from the state’s urban firefighting budget.
The Daily Mail reported on protests set to take place in Sydney in which protestors planned to carry banners saying: “Sack ScoMo [Morrison]! Fund The Firies, Climate Action Now!”.
The handling of the situation and lack of urgency in the government’s response has been roundly derided by the press both in Australia and around the world. An opinion piece by the Sydney Morning Herald’s political and international editor Peter Hartcher accused Australian leaders of “fiddling while the country burns”.
Many publications drew clear links between the government’s perceived inaction on climate change and the current situation. The Daily Mail noted that shortly after the first death was announced, Green Party MP Adam Bandt made the link with climate change.
The Guardian reported that New South Wales Labor MP Mike Kelly had called for a “war-like mobilisation effort” to tackle climate change, stressing that “the current model of response will not be adequate or sustainable to deal with this” (although noting this was his view, not official party policy). Labor leader Anthony Albanese said these bushfires “could be the new norm” and stressed the need for better leadership.
Despite this backlash, Morrison said he would not consider downsizing the nation’s coal industry in a bid to tackle global warming. “I am not going to write off the jobs of thousands of Australians by walking away from traditional industries,” he told Australian broadcaster Channel Seven.
At a press conference reported by News.com.au, the prime minister acknowledged that climate change, “along with many other factors”, was contributing to the fires.
However, when confronted with reports, covered by the Guardian, placing Australia low in the rankings for international action on climate change, Morrison said he “completely rejects” the notion that the country is not doing enough.
(According to Climate Action Tracker, under current policies “Australian emissions are headed for an increase of 8% above 2005 levels by 2030”, giving them a “highly insufficient” rating for meeting Paris Agreement targets.)
At the same time, to mark the new year, the prime minister also wrote a piece in the Herald Sun appearing to downplay the role of climate change, noting that: “The generations of Australians that went before us, including our First Australians, also faced natural disasters, floods, fires, global conflicts, disease and drought”.
Others have not been willing to acknowledge climate change at all, with politicians such as Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce pointing the finger at “greenies” putting red tape in the way of measures to prevent fires.
The Sydney Morning Herald said deputy prime minister Michael McCormack described the Green Party as “inner-city raving lunatics” for discussing climate change as bushfires still burned.
Meanwhile, as the fires raged, former prime minister and climate sceptic Tony Abbott took to Israeli public radio to claim the world was in the grip of a “climate death cult”, according to the Guardian.
As flames continued to burn on an enormous scale, Morrison announced on 4 January he would dispatch 3,000 army, navy and air force reservists to fight the fires, as well as additional fire-fighting aircraft from overseas, according to the Associated Press.
At a press conference the next day, the prime minister also said his government was clear about the connection between climate change and the fires:
“I have to correct the record here. I have seen a number of people suggest that somehow the government does not make this connection. The government has always made this connection and that has never been in dispute.”
The Guardian noted senior politicians were “distancing” themselves from Liberal MP Craig Kelly after he appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain show in the UK and tried to falsely claim there was “no link” to climate change, despite stern protestations by the show’s weather presenter Laura Tobin. The clip of their exchange has since gone viral.
Nevertheless, Reuters reported on 7 January that the government was “sticking firmly to a position that there is no direct link between climate change and the country’s devastating bushfires, despite public anger, the anguish of victims and warnings from scientists”.
It quotes energy minister Angus Taylor, who tells the publication: “When it comes to reducing global emissions, Australia must and is doing its bit, but bushfires are a time when communities must unite, not divide”.
What has the media response been?
The crisis underway in Australia has received widespread national and international coverage since the fires began in November.
To illustrate this, the Adelaide Advertiser compiled clippings from around the world showing the “horrified disbelief” shown by the press as “our nation, long viewed as one of the most idyllic places on the planet, is now being seen as hell on earth”.
One image in particular by photographer Matthew Abbott, showing a kangaroo bounding in front of a New South Wales blaze, appeared on front pages around the world, including the UK’s Financial Times, Guardian, Times and Daily Telegraph, as well as the New York Times and Canada’s Globe and Mail.
View this post on Instagram
My last day of the decade felt like the apocalypse. Been covering the Australian bushfires for the last 6 weeks, but haven’t seen anything like yesterdays fire that decimated the town of Conjola, NSW. #bushfirecrisis #AustralianBushfires #NSWisburning work for @nytimes
A post shared by Matthew Abbott (@mattabbottphoto) on Dec 31, 2019 at 9:27pm PST
The Independent featured an image of an enormous smoke plume on the front page of its app, with the declaration “this is what a climate crisis looks like”.
Many editorial inches have been devoted to the fires, and politicians’ handling of them. On New Year’s Eve, a Sydney Morning Herald editorial painted a devastating picture of “the unfolding tragedy of the bushfires” at a time that ought to be devoted to festivities. It argued that the government “has an essential role to play”:
“That includes more funding and resources for fighting fires and assistance for those displaced, whose businesses have been hurt or who have lost their homes. But Australians increasingly are looking to the government to take national and global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop the terrifying advance of climate change.”
Another editorial in the Herald called for a royal commission to investigate the “literally scores of issues that need examination”, including the potential for more hazard reduction burning, following this “horror summer”.
Criticism of the Australian government’s response has been widespread. The Guardian noted that the prime minister has “tried to deflect and distract from the role played by global heating in a national disaster”.
It also recalled comments made by energy minister Angus Taylor, who said Australia – a nation with one of the highest levels of per capita CO2 emissions in the world – cannot have an impact on emissions without China and India following suit. The editorial concluded:
“That is a counsel of despair. It is also one that is culpably inadequate, coming from a minister whose country is getting hotter, dryer and more dangerous as each year goes by.”
The Financial Times editorial also pointed out Australian failings on climate, referencing their recent performance at COP25 (see Carbon Brief’s coverage for more information) and echoing the sentiment that Australia must play its part in tackling emissions:
“Mr Morrison is now paying a political cost for his inaction. A far higher price will be paid in future for the bleak litany of climate failures his government represents.”
The Irish Times accused Morrison of “perpetuating an environmental fraud” by producing a third of global coal exports while promising to meet emissions targets, while the Globe and Mail in Canada said the wildfires “show the perils of ignoring climate-change threats”. The Washington Post called the “apocalyptic” fires “a warning to the world”.
One particularly bleak take in the New York Times by novelist Richard Flanagan concluded that “Australia is committing climate suicide”.
In the Melbourne Age, climate scientist Dr Linden Ashcroft reflected on Mallacoota, a town in Victoria hit hard by the fires, and said that while attributing individual events to climate change is difficult, “the big picture is crystal clear: this is what climate change looks like”. In the Atlantic, Robinson Meyer wrote:
“Perhaps this episode will prompt the more pro-carbon members of Australia’s Parliament to accede to some climate policy. Or perhaps prime minister Morrison will distract from any link between the disaster and climate change…And so maybe Australia will find itself stuck in the climate spiral, clinging ever more tightly to coal as its towns and cities choke on the ash of a burning world.”
On a slightly brighter note, writing for ABC News, Professor Frank Jotzo from the Australian National University’s Centre for Climate and Energy Policy said this “national crisis” could be “the turning point for Australia’s climate change politics and policy that is so deeply in the ditch”.
Not all newspaper coverage suggested the fires should prompt a dramatic shift in Australia climate policy. In its editorial on the subject, the Daily Telegraph, which has a history of promoting climate scepticism, suggested Australia has become “ground zero in the climate change crisis”, but that there must be “honesty” in the response:
“Morrison recently won an election on the environment debate: many rural and working-class Australians agreed with him that the country can balance conservation with growth.”
A further editorial emphasised the importance of “clearing away easily flammable undergrowth”, concluding “it is not a conspiracy against climate change science to propose that age-old methods of controlling our environment need to be retained”.
Meanwhile, the Guardian reported that “the Australian, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship newspaper, has defended itself against criticism it downplayed unprecedented bushfires by failing to put a picture of the disaster on the front page of an edition, even as newspapers across the world featured the harrowing scenes”.
[Many articles published under Murdoch’s News Corp umbrella in Australia are behind hard paywalls and, therefore, difficult to access.]
The Australian ran an “exclusive” piece at the end of the year quoting energy minister Taylor, who said UN efforts to pressure nations into tackling climate change would fail. He also wrote a piece for the paper explaining: “in most countries it isn’t acceptable to pursue emission reduction policies that add substantially to the cost of living, destroy jobs, reduce incomes and impede growth”.
Another article in the Australian told readers the fires were not unusual:
“While there is no doubt these bushfires are bad and may get worse, fuelling more talk of the nation battling an unprecedented fire threat this summer, the blazes that continue to plague the eastern states and Western Australia are nothing new.”
However, one piece in the Australian did at least concede that human-caused climate change was a contributor factor:
“The scientific consensus could not be clearer: anthropogenic warming has worsened Australia’s fire risk by extending fire seasons, increasing average temperature and drying the landscape. And yet addressing this reality by reducing emissions will offer little practical help to Australians who must gird themselves against the threat of more fires, at least not for the foreseeable future.”
Other Murdoch-owned publications accused by the Guardian of not giving the fires due prominence were the Herald Sun, the Australian Daily Telegraph and the Courier-Mail.
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