Australian fires: Everything we know and how you can help



Australia is on fire.

Saeed Khan/Getty

Australia is facing an unprecedented national crisis, as bushfires tear through rural communities across the nation. Since September, at least 20 people have died and over 1,500 homes have been destroyed. Another 28 people have been confirmed missing after bushfires tore through busy tourist hubs in eastern Victoria at the turn of the new year. The scale of the threat is immense, and fires continue to burn, with authorities calling for people to evacuate their homes as the country braces for another weekend of catastrophic danger. 

Australians caught up in the crisis are taking to social media and pleading for help. Entire towns have been flattened as fires snaked through bushland, across highways and up mountains. In New South Wales and Victoria, the most populous states in the country, people tried to outrun the blaze and highways were clogged with cars. In major cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne, a dense smoke has descended over busy metropolitan areas like a blanket. Some regions of the country recorded air quality measurements 20 times above the hazardous level.

The situation is grim. Australians are exhausted and frustrated by a lack of clear leadership. Many have had to flee their homes. With fire conditions getting worse in the coming days, help is required. 

Here’s what we know about the ongoing fires and a number of ways you can provide assistance from Australia or afar. 

What caused the fires?

This is a complex question. Australia is a continent familiar with bushfires, bushfire management and the importance of fires in regenerating the land. The indigenous people who have lived across the island continent for tens of thousands of years have long known the importance of fire management and how it contributes to the health of ecosystems. Bushfires are a well-understood threat, but the fires now burning across the nation have been described as “unprecedented” in their ferocity and scale.

Fires can start in a number of ways — from carelessly discarded cigarettes to lightning strikes and arson — but they’re fueled by a dizzying amount of factors. A lack of rain and low soil moisture can help enable small fires to grow in size, and coupled with the high temperatures and fierce winds that Australia has experienced in the last few months, these small fires can become huge infernos. In addition, with the fire season getting longer, the window to perform critical hazard reduction burns has decreased, giving fires a chance to really take hold. 

The bushfire risk for the 2019 season was well known to Australian firefighting chiefs, who had been trying to meet with Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, since April, worried that a crisis was coming, but they were constantly rebuffed. 

A greenhouse gas cannot start a fire on its own. Bushfires aren’t started by climate change, but they are exacerbated by the effects of global warming. The Climate Council, an independent, community-funded climate organization, suggests bushfire conditions are now more dangerous than they were in the past, with longer bushfire seasons, drought, drier fuels and soils and record-breaking heat. The link between bushfires and climate change has become a political football, but experts agree climate change explains the unprecedented nature of the current crisis. 

Notably, Australia experienced its hottest year on record in 2019, climbing 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than the average, according to a report by the Bureau of Meteorology. Rising temperatures increase the risk of bushfire, and in November, Sydney experienced a catastrophic fire danger for the first time ever. 

There is also a horrifying feedback loop that occurs when great swaths of land are ablaze, a fact the globe grappled with during the Amazon fires of 2019. Bushfires release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The gas, which makes up only a small percentage of the total gases in the atmosphere, is exceptionally good at trapping heat. In just three months, Australia’s fires are estimated to have released 350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Experts warn a century or more will be needed to absorb the carbon dioxide released. 

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What areas are affected?

Fires are raging in every state, with some of the greatest conflagrations in NSW and Victoria. The Gospers Mountains fires, in NSW, have burned over half a million hectares, and scientists suggest it could be the largest single-ignition point fire in Australia’s history. The total area that’s been burned is rapidly approaching 6 million hectares (almost 15 million acres). That’s almost seven times the amount of burnt area the Amazon experienced in 2019 and about three times the amount burnt in California’s 2018 wildfires.

The Japanese weather satellite, Himawari, captured some stunning images from space of the smoke plumes developing off the south-east coast of Australia. You can see the formation of huge pyrocumulus clouds, a type of smoke cloud often seen during bushfires that can generate its own problematic weather — including lightning storms. 

The Guardian Australia has an excellent interactive map you can use to understand the extreme size of the fires, and the entire fire front, compared to other cities around the globe. 

The dust and ash from the fires have spread across the ocean and as far as New Zealand’s Franz Josef Glacier. On Jan. 1, images emerged of Franz Josef’s snowy mountaintops colored a caramel brown. The distance between the glacier and the bushfire front is about the same as the distance from Boston to Miami. 

When will they end?

Another complex question. Predictions suggest they will stretch well into 2020. After all, Australia is only one month through summer and dry, hot conditions persist through March and April. Much-needed rain, which would help alleviate some of the uncontrolled blazes, is still forecast to be months away.

Are koalas at risk of extinction?

An erroneous report in November 2019 stated that the koala, an Australian icon, was “functionally extinct” due to the bushfires burning across NSW and Queensland. Experts do not believe this to be true, but the species — and many other native Australian fauna — are under threat as a direct result of the uncontrolled blazes.

Ecologists at the University of Sydney estimate that up to 480 million animals may have perished in the conflagrations, including up to 8,000 koalas. Sussan Ley, Australia’s environment minister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the true extent of deaths can’t be fully grasped until the fires have stopped burning and “a proper assessment can be made.” 

As the fires slither across the nation, it’s not only the koala that is in strife — much of Australia’s native wildlife is being displaced. Zoos Victoria has provided a handy guide on how to help. 

The crisis in real time

Social media is awash with harrowing images from the firefront, showing communities huddling by the beach as orange, dusty skies obscure the horizon. The Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House have disappeared beneath a grey haze multiple times in the last two months.

On Dec. 31, a crew from NSW Fire and Rescue station 509 were caught inside their fire truck, south of the township of Nowra, as a fire front descended on the vehicle. Footage from the incident rapidly spread across the web.

Some of the most widely circulated images came out of Mallacoota, a small town in eastern Victoria which regularly sees a huge amount of tourists over the Christmas holidays. On Dec. 31, around 4,000 people were forced down to the lake to avoid bushfires. 

Mallacoota residents and tourists were evacuated by two naval vessels on Jan 3.

Incredible footage of a magpie which has started to mimic the sound of a fire truck emerged on Jan. 2. 

In New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, climate reporter David Wallace-Wells writes that there’s been “global apathy” in responding to the bushfire crisis. The New York Times showed clogged highways and roads, cars bumper to bumper, trying to flee the carnage. The Guardian spoke with residents talking in apocalyptic terms, calling the situation they’d found themselves in “Armageddon.” Prominent Australian reporter and broadcaster Hugh Riminton called Australia “a burning nation led by cowards.”

On Jan. 3 a fire took hold on Kangaroo Island, an important ecological safe haven off the coast of South Australia. Rains helped ease the burden overnight and the state’s fire service downgraded the emergency threat level early on Jan. 4, after a quarter of the island was ravaged by the “unstoppable” fire. It is still burning out of control. 

Saturday Jan. 4 brought weather conditions that were expected to, and did, “deteriorate quickly.” The combination of high temperatures, reaching around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), low humidity and winds creates a dangerous mix of conditions allowing fire to take hold and spread quickly. 

Conditions eased on Jan. 5 and as cool air moved through the country, a handful of blazes were downgraded from emergency level to watch and act. There are a number of emergency warnings still in place in both NSW and Victoria. 

What about the political response?

A real sense of frustration has been building, from the Australian public, toward the governing conservative Liberal party and the prime minister, Scott Morrison. As the bushfire crisis began to crescendo the first time, Morrison was holidaying in Hawaii but amid public backlash, and following the deaths of two volunteer firefighters, cut his trip short by a day.

There have been allegations within the Australian press and across social media that, somehow, the Greens (a center-left party) are somehow to blame for the extent of the fires because they prevented hazard reduction burning. This has been proven to be demonstrably wrong.

On Jan. 2, Morrison visited the town of Cobargo, which has been ravaged by the fires, and was greeted by angry residents refusing to shake his hand and heckling him from across the street. They were angry — and they wanted to make their voices heard. One resident, seen in footage shot by Australia’s 9News, said she would only shake Morrison’s hand if he committed to helping the firefighting efforts. “We are totally forgotten about down here,” one resident explained.

Twitter’s trending section has consistently found itself flooded with hashtags such as #AustraliaBurning, right next to #dismissthisprimeminister and #ScottyFromMarketing — a reference by the satirical Australian website The Betoota Advocate to the prime minister’s previous time in marketing. 

In the US, presidential hopefuls such as Bernie Sanders have been tweeting about the fires, as has singer Bette Midler, who tweeted some choice words for the Australian prime minister to her 1.8 million followers.

How you can help

A number of organizations and volunteer services are aiding in the firefighting and recovery efforts for affected communities. You can find a ton of handy links and information below:

Originally posted on Dec. 2 and updated regularly.


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