Photo credit: Bert Knot

Images of charred wildlife, apocalyptic smoke-filled red skies and flames roaring through forests have been plastered all over media channels recently, summing up the devastation caused by months of bushfires tearing through Australia.

Despite the fires shocking the world, it’s hard to truly grasp the scale and effects of this disaster, let alone capture the feelings across the nation.

In an attempt to fill in readers beyond Australia, two Travelettes, Alice based in Sydney and Tamara in Melbourne, reveal all they know about the fires and attempt to sum up the atmosphere in their respective home cities.

Let’s start from the top, how did the fires start and how have the spread?

Tamara: First of all, I think it’s important to establish that bushfires in Australia have been occurring for centuries, way before modern day records began. The hot and dry conditions during the warmer months are simply ideal conditions for fires to start.

Once a fire has been ignited, be it by a lightning strike, human accident – whatever, the dry, dense forests (especially the oil-filled native species such as eucalyptus) alight easily and spread the fire rapidly. The difference is that this year, Australia saw the hottest average day on record, a lack of rain and extremely high winds that scientists are saying is no doubt triggered by man-made global warming. 

There have also been a few cases of arson though, where people have been caught red-handed starting fires, especially kids during school holidays.

Regardless of how the fires started (which is possibly a combination of reasons – it’s hard to properly establish), the climate conditions mean they are spreading rapidly and many are joining up to create mega fires.

Alice: Tamara’s hit the nail on the head. Because of its climate, bushfires are common in Australia during the summer. For decades, backburning has been used to control the spread of fires, and Indigenous communities have long been using their knowledge of the terrain to manage them. But the number of fires, and the rate at which they’re spreading are unprecedented. 

How bad is the damage so far?

Alice: Catastrophic. There’s literally no other word I can use to describe how much irreversible damage has been done. In NSW alone, over five million hectares have been impacted, and over 2000 homes have been lost. So far, 27 people have died and families have lost everything as a result of these fires. We’re only halfway through the dry season –  there could be months of battling these fires ahead of us.

Australia is one of the biggest countries in the world, so I understand that for millions of people, it’s hard to comprehend how much of the country is burning. But it is. The biggest loss of life has been to wildlife. An estimate of half a billion animals have been killed in NSW alone and a third of the koala population has been lost. Because of its isolation as a country, Australia is home to a huge number of indigenous animals, and their numbers are continuing to fall as these fires rage. 

As has been widely reported, there have been days when we step outside and it’s raining ash. As I’m answering this, it’s actually a particularly bad day; I walked over Harbour bridge and could hardly make out the skyscrapers. It sounds dramatic, but on days like today you can literally feel the smoke in the back of your throat when you breathe. These fires have been detrimental to every aspect of Australia, from the people to the nature to the terrain, and the scariest thing is that there’s currently no end in sight.

How are Australians reacting to the fires?

Alice: The atmosphere is mixed in Sydney. The international attention is incredible, but the new year awakened the world to the situation, when in reality, NSW has been dealing with these out of control fires for months. The initial anger is still there, but there’s also unmistakable sadness.

For weeks, NSW residents have been inhaling toxic air and there’s literally nothing any of us can do except stay indoors and invest in a mask. The heaviness of the smoke makes cloudy days even greyer, and seeing people walking around in gas masks is, above everything, heartbreaking. So yes, people are angry, but they’re also sad. 

The anger is aimed entirely at the Government. Not only does Scott Morrison have a reputation for ignoring and denying the impact of climate change (whilst his country is burning), but he also imposed drastic cuts across the fire service. According to NSW State Government’s 2019-20 budget papers, a total of over $39.6 million has been slashed in funding for the Fire and Rescue NSW and the office of the NSW Rural Fire Service.

The result of this is an influx of volunteer firefighters stepping up to risk their lives every day. A family friend is one of those who has stepped up, and it’s terrifying knowing his life – and all of those he’s working with – are in such enormous danger whilst these fires continue to rage. American and Canadian firefighters have also now come over to assist in controlling the fires, and they were applauded through arrivals by Aussies. 

National disasters really do bring out the best in people, but you can’t help but be exasperated knowing this could have been prevented, or at least controlled, had the Government made the right choices.

Tamara: I would definitely say there is a lot of anger in Melbourne too and it’s mainly towards the government. But people are also feeling an overwhelming sense of helplessness and despair. 

Indigenous leaders have been warning about the looming bushfires for years. The First People knew how to manage the land they lived off, working to prevent a mass disaster like this happening. However their calls for action and knowledge of land management was ignored. It’s a big kick in the teeth for indigenous people.

Like Alice said, the cuts to the fire service are well known by the public and the fact people are having to step in to risk their lives is embarrassing and shocking. There have even been reports of firefighters filling up firetrucks with fuel paid for out of their own pockets because the government issued ones have declined. Though this hasn’t been fact checked.

It basically seems as though the Australian government hasn’t learnt lessons from the last bushfire disaster back in 2009, nicknamed ‘Black Saturday’ that killed 173 people and destroyed 450,000 hectares of land. 

To top things off, the prime minister Scott Morrison, went on holiday a few weeks ago. Alright, people are allowed a holiday but during some of the worst bushfires the country has ever seen? Hardly a good example or leadership! What Australia desperately needs right now is a leader to not only comfort the people, but also to take swift action. Unfortunately ‘Scomo’ (as he is known), has handled it appallingly. There have been extremely late visits to the rural towns affected where he’s been booed and heckled, grabbed people’s hands for forced handshakes and generally expressed no emotions or words of comfort beyond the empty rhetoric of ‘thoughts and prayers’.

As a result, protests calling for Scott Morrison to resign have been flooding the streets in Melbourne. He’s also a climate change denier as Alice said and so the protests have taken on a distinct environmental stance.   

Although it sounds dramatic, it’s almost like the country is in widespread mourning. My colleagues and friends have told me they feel depressed about it on a daily basis and things like posting to social media feels wrong unless it’s about the fires. How can you carry on with day-to-day life knowing that this kind of prolonged destruction is happening nearby?

Are the physical effects of the fires being felt beyond Australia?

Tamara: Absolutely! The pollution from the smoke I believe is the biggest cause for concern. Satellite images show huge swathes of smoke, especially around South America and New Zealand, turning many countries skies grey or orange.

Unbelievably, NASA are saying that the smoke is set to orbit the planet, making a full circuit before coming back to Australia. I think that alone sums up the size and sheer disastrous nature of these fires.

Another haunting thing for me is seeing the glaciers in New Zealand covered in grey/brown soot from the fires. This is absolutely disastrous. The dark colour of the glaciers will absorb radiation and heat from the sun, essentially just melting them. The implications of this go beyond simply ice melting. For a start, the water will likely flood habitats and cause wide-scale erosion. 

Photo credit: Washington Post

 

The fires have caught the attention of many celebrities who have donated or volunteered. Who’s been getting involved?

Tamara: I think my favourite fundraising story by someone with influence is about Kaylen Ward, an Instagram model who raised $500,000 for the bushfire relief by selling nudes. A lot of people have given her stick and have been condescending about this kind of work but I think it’s a big two fingers to them. It’s brilliant. She’s raised more than many people with a lot of money would even consider donating and it’s highlighted that sex work is still work. As the internet said “not all heroes wear clothes” and I think that about sums it up.

Another celebrity who always blows me away with his generosity and determination is Leonardo DiCaprio. Both on and off screen he’s been advocating for the environment and wildlife for years. His foundation focuses on a wide range of worthy causes, mainly centered around climate change, indigenous rights and poverty alleviation. In the wake of the bushfires, Leonardo DiCaprio and his organisation have donated $3 million(USD) to be split to “assist critical firefighting efforts in New South Wales, aid local communities most affected by the wildfires, enable wildlife rescue and recovery, and support the long term restoration of unique ecosystems.”

If there is ever a reason to love DiCaprio more, it’s this.

Alice: I personally didn’t think I could love Leo more, but here we are. 

As always, David Attenborough managed to reach audiences and breakthrough to people in a way that nobody but he can in this ABC interview. My favourite line of his speech is: “You are the keepers of an extraordinary section of this planet… and what you say, what you do, really matters.” He is just so, so right. That video has been shared all over my timeline, so if it keeps the conversation fresh, that’s all that matters.

Whilst it feels obvious to bring up her name, we can’t really talk about raising money without mentioning Celeste Barber’s incredible GoFundMe, which broke the Facebook fundraising record… it’s raised over $50 million! The majority of the funds came from small donations, which really does go to show how every little helps.

 

How can I help with the bushfire relief and recovery if I’m not in Australia?

Alice: For those not currently in Australia, the easiest way to help is to donate money to those affected. The GoFundMe just mentioned is proof of how, if everyone donates a little, it will go a long way. It can be hard to know where to send your money when so many charities are calling for action. To donate to the victims, a couple of those at the forefront of aiding those affected are the Salvation Army, and the Australian Red Cross. The latter has sent over 1000 volunteers and members of staff to communities affected by the fires. To donate to those battling the fires, the Rural Fire Service are accepting donations, which will go towards fighting the bushfires and the emergency efforts. Meanwhile, if you’re looking to donate to those rescuing and assisting the wildlife, the WWF are ensuring the recovery and wellbeing of thousands of animals. With so many incredible charities out there making a difference, it’s hard to narrow them down, but a quick Google search will also show you where you can donate.

Another way to help is by purchasing from Ausies businesses which have been affected by the fires. To name a few: for swim and surfwear, support AkwaSurf, head to Guerilla Roasters incredible coffee, if you’re looking for a new book give The Harbour Bookshop a call and if you’re looking for a gift, the award-winning Stony Creek Farm Distillery’s gin makes a fantastic present! For a full list of businesses you can support, head to Finder.

Tamara: As Alice says, money is the most effective way to help. However if you are cash-strapped, then you can absolutely still do something. 

People all over the world are knitting and sewing for injured and displaced wildlife, including making joey pouches, bat wraps and mittens for koalas. So if you’re a bit crafty, head over the Animal Rescue Collective Craft Guild group for what to make and where to send it, or look on Youtube for some tutorials.  

Once it is safe to do so, I would also urge people to come and visit Australia sometime in the future. They have taken a massive hit due to a slump in tourism and at a time like this, they could really do with your support.

We hope that this Q&A has been somewhat useful in answering some questions about the 2019/20 Australian bushfires. If there’s anything else you’d like to know, please leave us a comment and we’ll try our best to answer if we can.