Australia Burns On: How it Happened and What to Do

Australia Burns On: How it Happened and What to Do

As brushfires in Australia rage into massive, destructive flames, the world watches people get displaced from homes and trees and animals burn. Here’s why there’s a crisis to begin with and what you can do, even thousands of miles away.

The so-called “brushfires” in Australia have left the world in shock and helpless despair. I say “brushfire” because while these flames did start as brushfires, they have grown to much more than that: huge billows of flame have been searing across the island, and firefighters, communities, and environmentalists are struggling to keep up.

The burning island has gained national attention. American celebrities have donated upwards of $500,000 to the cause, and volunteers from around the world are even traveling to the continent to give immediate help. News channels show koalas drinking water from human water bottles and animal conservationists nursing kangaroos with formula. It’s a bleak and devastating thing to watch, especially if you’re watching from thousands of miles away.

One Newsweek article notes that at least 18 people have died, thousands of homes have been destroyed, and the fires have lit over 10 million acres of land.

But, as hopeless as one might feel as a bystander, there are important things to understand about the Australian fires: that they were caused by a handful of careless individuals, and they have been exacerbated by record levels of drought and hot temperatures brought on by climate change; and that there are actually many ways you can help—even from another continent.

How did these fires start, and why are they so uncontrollable?

The answer has many factors, but there are two major factors. First: two dozen people have been arrested and charged by Australian police for allegedly lighting blazes during the wildfire season on purpose—which could result in a jail sentence of up to 21 years in prison. Second: Australia’s summer (between about December to March) has been incredibly dry this year, and brushfires that are typically small and controlled have been exacerbated by intense weather changes and winds brought on by climate change.

The allegations and arrests of individual who actually lit the fires are, sadly, not the end of it. Police in the state have also taken legal action against another 159 people—53 of whom allegedly failed to comply with a total fire ban and 47 of whom allegedly discarded a lit cigarette or match on land.

“As inquiries continue, police are appealing to the community to provide footage and/or images from phones, dashcam, or other devices, that show any of the fires in their infancy, even if only from a distance,” said New South Wales police in a statement.

While the individuals that allegedly committed arson are the legal reason for the crisis, there is one major catch: climate change. Yes—with climate change comes extreme weather conditions, record-breaking temperatures, and uncontrollable climate catastrophes.

The risk of wildfire is always high during summer months in Australia given that vegetation is dry and the air is hot. However, scientists have long warned against the rising risk of extreme conditions and climate swings, and there is one key word that makes climate change an undeniable, scientific truth.

Trends. Australian officials have noted the unreasonably high temperatures and drought over the last three months in the country, and they say that these have greatly contributed to the fact that these brushfires have gotten out of control and devastatingly aggressive.

“One of the key drivers of fire intensity, fire spread rates and fire area is temperature. And in Australia we've just experienced record high temperatures,” said Mark Howden, director of the Climate Change Institute at Australian National University.

What kinds of trends has Australia seen? A report by the Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) said that last spring saw the highest fire weather danger ever recorded all across the country.
 
And these concerningly high levels of drought and fire hazard brought the worst as Australia has seen increasingly severe fire weather, high winds, reduced cool season rainfall, and brushfires that have become raging blazes. And when individuals flout total fire bans and light fires, the problem becomes that much more alarming.

The unprecedented wildfires have even begun to set off bizarre weather phenomena that could mean more wildfires—such as fire-driven thunderstorms, fire clouds that funnel smoke and aerosols into the stratosphere, and so-called ember attacks. These fires are essentially interacting with the atmosphere and creating their own weather, including lighting, which can cause new wildfires, said Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

“There are places where flames have been 70 meters [230 feet] high, and there’s evidence in some places that temperatures of the fires have been 1,000 degrees [celsius],” Perkins-Kirkpatrick  said.

These individuals’ disregard of fires bans have become a death sentence for the country as thousands of homes have burned, some people have died, massive swaths of forests have burned, and mammals, reptiles, and birds alike have died. The entire human and nonhuman ecosystem of the country is at stake.

Firefighters and communities are trying to find enough people to help. Scientists and environmentalists scramble to save and rehabilitate as many animals as possible. Communities band together to house displaced individuals and feed them. The country is inhaling smog, and many have developed respiratory problems.

While human life is at stake, groups have warned about the devastation that comes with losing wildlife. The University of Sydney has estimated that as many as half a billion mammals, birds, and reptiles have perished.

What can I do—far from the crisis?

You are not as far as you think. There are two main ways you can help, and a little really does go a long way.

Of course, donations are crucial—crucial to firefighters, community centers, and animal conservationists and wildlife specialists. However, you do not need to donate thousands of dollars like celebrities Keith Urban, Nicole Kidman, or Pink have. There are a number of organizations that could use any donation amount you can spare—especially because it’s hard to fight any crisis without funds.

The following groups are collecting donations to the cause, and one NBC news article clearly outlines how each organization allocates its funds:

Australian Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery is raising money for recovery programs and emergency assistance in communities, and funds help disaster preparation, protection, and volunteer training. Donate here.

The Salvation Army is supporting communities affected by the fires with emergency service teams responding to loss of life and property. Donate here.
 
The St. Vincent de Paul Society helps people who need emergency housing and other services, and has launched the Vinnies Brushfire Appeal. Donate here.

WIRES is committed to rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife rescue in Australia. While so many animals have died already, those who have survived need human help, as they lack habitat, food, water, and medicine. Donate here.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) notes on its site that just only five percent of the koala population remains. The WWF is working to save Australian wildlife and restore land for future habitats. Donate here.

RSPCA NSW is working to also help animals and wildlife endangered by the fires, including pets and livestock. Donate here.

Vets Beyond Borders is delivering medical care to animals affected by the brushfires. Donate here.

Firefighters are the backbone of the fight against these fires, and many are unpaid volunteers who need support. You can donate to many firefighting organizations: Country Fire Authority (CFA) in Victoria and the NSW Rural Fire Service in New South Wales.

Foodbank is a hunger relief charity in Australia where every $1 donated, they provide $6 worth of supplies to communities affected by fires. Donate here.

Save the Children collects donations to support kids affected by the fire by building “child friendly space” where kids can play together and process changes in a supportive environment. Donate here.

One Tree Planted is a nonprofit that tackles long-term restoration of the environment. The group collects money to plant more trees, especially in Australia, and establish which trees different purposes for the environment. Donate here.

NBC News provides some helpful tips on how to avoid brushfire donation scams, too.

Donations are essential to the cause, and more can always help. However, there’s another big thing you can be doing to support the crisis, and that is to talk about it, to share about it, and to educate yourself.

People seem to forget that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have power, too. Our interconnected, technological world, gives the internet amazing power. There are a number of individuals using their voices to share important articles about the fires, to direct people to the right donation platforms, and to educate others about what needs to and can be done.

It’s just important that you are first educating yourself on the problem before sharing something. And what’s more, your sharing and posting needs to be intentional. Simply posting something with the hastag #SaveAustralia or a picture of the wreckage does not do anything. Donate, vote, sign petitions, and be honest with your social media choices because action is backed by action, not words.

You can search the hashtag #AuthorsForFireys where authors are auctioning off signed books, writing services, and in some cases creative input, into future projects. The highest bidders must send the agreed upon fee directly to the CFA and show proof of donation.

This is only the beginning

The state can expect to have a long and dangerous summer ahead, as the dry season will continue to put the country at risk long after these fires are controlled. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service reported this week that there are still 69 uncontained fires in that state alone—many of which remain severe.

The Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison, will likely have a long road ahead, as he has already received harsh criticism for not addressing the link between the country’s wildfires and climate change.

The Australian fires continue to rage. People continue to watch their homes burn, their livestock suffocate, and their environment disintegrate. If there’s one thing the world can take away from this crisis it’s that this world is interconnected and interwoven, and something you or I can do with $10 or through our local communities does actually reach those in need if we really try.