Taking a trip to Australia could be scary for some, as the country is well known for being full of intimidating animals. Almost everything in Australia is out to kill you. There are giant snakes, scorpions, massive spiders, bats, venomous animals, and kangaroos (and yes, even the kangaroos can be deadly). Due to this perceived danger, the Australian wilderness can seem a bit hellish. All jokes aside, Australia has a serious issue right now. And it’s not a terrifying giant spider, its bushfires.
While most people have heard about the bushfires in Australia, their knowledge doesn’t go much further than that. After asking Mines students if they knew what was happening in Australia, a simple response is “It is on fire.” Most of the students thought that the fires were bad. Actually, everyone I asked said that the fires were bad. While this isn’t surprising, the events in Australia are much more complicated than simply suggesting the whole continent is on fire.
Why Are There so Many Fires?
Australia’s fire season begins in late July and because the country is in the Southern Hemisphere, they are anticipating hot weather and fires during our winter. Drought and constant heat were worse this year than in past years. This, paired with record-breaking December heat (up to 120° F in some areas), is making conditions even more flammable than usual. These extreme summer weather conditions have been starting earlier and getting stronger each year.
Most of the fires are started by natural causes, like dry forests and lightning strikes, although sometimes the bushfires are caused by humans as well, either on accident or on purpose. Around 18 million acres have burned so far and a few countries (the US, Canada, & New Zealand) have sent firefighting assistance.
While some of the smaller bushfires burn out or are controlled within a few days, there are larger fires that will burn for weeks. These fires are affecting regions all over the country, from national parks to large cities. In Sydney, homes in the suburbs have been damaged by fire, and smoke has covered the city center. The air quality in Sydney was extremely hazardous back in December and in some areas of the continent, like the Lake Victoria area, it’s still dangerous. Real-time air quality reports can be found at aqicn.org/map/australia/.
Impact on Australia
At least 28 people have died (including multiple volunteer firefighters) and thousands of homes have been destroyed all over the continent. While the impact on the animals is harder to measure, ecologists from the University of Sydney estimate that up to 1 billion animals may have been affected, with millions of them likely dead.
While some species are more spread out across the continent, ecologists are most concerned with those that live in specialized, niche environments. There are species that could be in serious danger of extinction if their habitats are affected by the fires. Specifically on Kangaroo Island, the kangaroo island dunnart (that lived in the now-destroyed understory) and the kangaroo island glossy black cockatoo were both close to extinction, and ecologists worry that the fires have only worsened this condition. Other animals (like the mountain pygmy possum, the brush-tailed rock wallaby, the yellow-bellied glider, and the endangered regent honeyeater) have very specific habitats and the fires have burned through their specialized areas. Experts worry that they will be close to extinction by the time the fire season is over. The true damage on the ecosystem can’t be measured until the fires stop. Until then information is based on population density and previous knowledge of the species.
The smoke has also made quite the impact, creating giant clouds visible from space. The air quality along the south-eastern shore of Australia has been sporadically affected, sometimes at the hazardous level. The plume of smoke was tracked from space travelling east across the Pacific Ocean. Part of the haze even reached South America in early January, negatively affecting the air quality there – even turning the skies grey. Because the burning of wood releases CO2, the fires in total have released 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
From posts on social media to comments at the Golden Globes, celebrities (like Rachel Ray, Leonardo DiCaprio, Chris Hemsworth, and others) are making an effort to raise awareness for the fires in Australia. They have donated money (millions of dollars in total) and encouraged others to donate as well. Some celebrities are making an effort for a more physical impact, donating their time to fire relief efforts. Lizzo volunteered at Foodbank Victoria while she was in Australia for a tour. Members of the Irwin family (of Australian zoologist & conservationist Steve Irwin) are treating animal survivors of the fires, with their wildlife hospital having treated more than 90,000 patients.
In an effort to locate and get the endangered koalas to a safe place, some are turning to familiar animal helpers. Trained dogs are pros at sniffing out hiding koalas, and they will happily do so for the promise of a tennis ball as a reward.
People outside of Australia are making a difference as well. More than a million people around the world have donated to charities. Even local artists on Etsy are hosting fundraisers, selling products with the proceeds going to organizations working on recovery from the bushfires. Stories of locals saving animals from being burned have also popped up, using furry friends (trained dogs) to help locate them in areas in danger.
While all these donations to organizations focused on relief efforts make a difference, Australia is still lacking in physical help on the ground. Sure, you could travel to Australia and become a volunteer firefighter, it’s a more practical solution for many to donate money instead. There are quite a few charities, each with a slightly different focus. Like WIRES, a wildlife rescue nonprofit rescuing injured and sick wildlife- or World Wildlife Fund Australia, focusing on koala conservation. The Country Fire Authority is finding local places for those who have been displaced. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service even has specific funds for families of killed volunteer firefighters.
News of rain earlier this month caused a stir, with many people hopeful that rain in Australia meant that the fires would subside.
Australia hasn’t been subject to only extremely dry conditions, in mid-January areas on the eastern coast received heavy rains and storms. While this did provide temporary relief to some of the bushfires, it brings issues of its own with the threat of flooding. Some areas saw flash flooding, others even got hail and dust storms. However, most of the continent didn’t get any of the rain, so the fires are still being fought by human forces.
Unfortunately, January and February are peak summer for Australia, so the fires are unlikely to end any time soon. Until then, we can only hope for the least amount of damage, and a quick recovery for Australia in this worse-than-usual bushfire season.