Australian Bushfires: 3 Ways to Help Right Now
I’ve been thinking back to one of my favorite high school trips recently.
A highlight of that trip was climbing to the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge--one of the world’s largest steel arch bridges.
I was 15, following a group along ramps and narrow catwalks, mostly horizontal until a steep climb at the end. Although there were more than 1,000 steps (CNTraveler), a warm, fresh breeze dancing in my hair and spectacular views of the iconic Sydney Harbour all around me completely took my mind off of the physical activity.
Once at the top of the bridge, around 440 feet (134 m) in the air, I was literally speechless by the view. I believe it was a sunny, clear day and the white, shell-shaped dome of the Sydney Opera House was almost as dazzling as the gleaming harbour waters below.
Sadly, I know if I did that climb again today, I might see a city blanketed in smoke.
A Climate Change Calamity
If you are like me, you have probably been bombarded by news about the Australian bushfires. You may have lost track of how long you’ve been hearing about the bushfires, so like me, it may surprise you to hear they’ve literally been a major issue for the island nation since around September (CBC).
But I think there’s a good reason--these fires aren’t just happening in remote areas: they are happening right at people’s doorsteps in populated areas. And some fires have been burning for months! (New York Times). The Times also reports these fires are like nothing the modern world has ever seen--an area the size of West Virginia has already been burned, and fire season is not even over.
Smoke wafting into cities, including Sydney and Adelaide—the capital of South Australia—from the bushfires throughout the country is causing some major health concerns (BBC).
As of January 17, Sydney has seen an about 10 percent rise in hospital admissions due to breathing issues (BBC). These issues stem from the fine particulars in smoke from the bushfires. More disturbingly, air quality readings in Sydney around Jan. 17 have shown breathing the air is about as toxic as smoking 37 cigarettes (BBC).
These fires were fueled by months of a severe drought and years of warmer, drier winters, likely attributed to climate change.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the country has seen an unprecedented three years in a row without a cooler “winter” wet season in the Murray-Darling Basin, the country’s bread basket. They’ve also been just about the driest three years the region has ever seen.
Rain Brings Relief?
Luckily, earlier this month huge rain and thunderstorms swept through many areas, helping around 2,000 firefighters nationwide to contain the blazes (Washington Post).
However, after months of unusually dry conditions, the massive amounts of rain have fallen simply too quickly for the parched soil to absorb, causing flooding. The thunderstorm winds are also stirring up dust from the dry conditions, leading to dust storms. If that’s not enough, golf-ball sized hail and 70 mph winds have hammered Sydney and the country’s capital, Canberra (Washington Post).
While the rain helped firefighters control the bushfires, as of Jan. 21 there were still around 60 burning throughout the country. These flames have taken around 30 lives and killed over an estimated billion wild animals (CBS News).
On Thursday, Jan. 23 three heroic U.S. firefighters, all military veterans under the age of 50, were killed tragically as they were flying above fires in the mountains south of Australia’s capital, Canberra (New York Times).
While the incident is still being investigated, it’s believed 90-degree heat and wind gusts around 60 mph whipping up smoke among the hilly landscape likely played a role in causing the crash.
How to Help Now
I could literally keep going with how terrible this disaster is, but I feel like the best thing I can do at the moment is to stop scrolling and lend a hand.
1. Help Firefighters
Donate to Australian firefighting services by visiting the Victoria Country Fire Authority (CFA) or to the NSW (New South Wales) Rural Fire Service here. Australia is in the top 10 countries with the most volunteer firefighters, with almost 200,000—around 1% of the population. With the country being particularly vulnerable to climate change, they are definitely going to need all the help they can get dealing with the current crisis and those to come (The Conversation).
2. Help Evacuees
To help the thousands of people throughout the country who are homeless due to the blazes, there are several organizations you can donate to. These include the Australian Red Cross that’s helping evacuees find immediate safety and shelter after they must flee their homes. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, a charity 60,000 members and volunteers strong that helps to combat injustice throughout Australia, is another organization you can support. It is helping provide necessities for evacuees like food, water, and clothing as they face an uncertain future. If you’d prefer to give actual items that are needed, you can visit the website of the Australian nonprofit GIVIT which works to connect those with items to donate to those who need them in a safe, private way.
3. Help Wildlife
The World Wildlife Fund has set up a special fund to help save as many animals as possible from Australia’s deadly blazes. There are also many animals that are still alive, but badly burned, still suffering from the drought, and are in need of emergency care. The organization WIRES rescues around 90,000 animals a year and rehabilitate them whenever possible to support the remarkably biodiverse Australian ecosystems. You can support them by visiting this website: https://www.wires.org.au. And if you are a Lush lover (like I am!), they just recently launched a special Koala-shaped bar of soap. According to the company's website, 100% of the money (minus tax) from buying each bar will support organizations working to rescue animals and to restore land.
I’m sure if you did a deep internet dive as well, you could find far more ways to support those affected by the fires--whether they are human or among the unique and vulnerable animal life that call Australia home.
I think the best thing we can do is take action to combat climate change. Being an island, Australia has an incredibly rich and one of a kind biodiversity. The species that could disappear due to climate change could really not thrive anywhere else (Link.Springer).
Climate change induced droughts are pushing these amazing ecosystems to the brink and threatening human life at the same time.
Sadly this isn’t the first time Australia has had to deal with deadly blazes due to abnormally dry conditions.
In 2011, The Guardian reported rainfall in Western Australia had fallen 20%, and the dry conditions caused brush to become more likely to catch fire.
In 2009, “Black Saturday Bushfires” fueled by the dry brush and weather killed around 173 people.
Ironically, Australia has continued to be among the top coal producers in the world--one of the fuel sources that is the most potent at fueling climate change (WorldEconomicForum; Union of Concerned Scientists).
According to WorldAtlas, Australia’s output of 413 million tons of coal in 2013 ranked it as the world’s 4th largest coal producer. About 90 percent of this coal is exported. About 34% goes to Japan and 24 percent to China--the rest goes to a variety of countries, including South Korea, India, Germany, and Brazil (AustralianMining). The 7th to 10th largest coal mines in the world are located in Australia (Mining Technology).
Australia’s main coal reserves are the Bowing Basin in Queensland and the Sydney Basin in New South Wales (NS Energy).
While Australia has signed the global agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the Paris Climate Agreement (gov.au), its leading role in coal production has caused many to protest for more action on switching to renewable energy (WashingtonPost).
Will this current catastrophe finally push Australia to change its ways?
Perhaps it could use a similar Pacific Realm nation, New Zealand, as a guide--in 2015 the country got around 40% of its energy from renewable sources (EECA).
New Zealand has a much more impressive goal, however—running on 100% renewable energy by 2035, Futurism reports. In 2017, the nation was tracking in the right direction, generating around 80% of its electricity from renewable sources--2016 data shows about 60 percent of this renewable energy came from hydropower.
Leading the helm of much of this progress is New Zealand’s 40th prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.
Ardern is an environmentalist who believes not acting in the fact of climate change is being on the “wrong side of history.” (CNBC). She also has a new way of measuring economic growth that reflects the challenges 21-century economies face: instead of measuring growth domestic product, the country’s economy instead focuses on environmental and social product.
“‘GDP may say your country is thriving, but it’s not thriving if it’s also degrading the environment and contributing to CO2 emissions,’” she told CNBC.
Perhaps Australia can learn from their Kiwi neighbors. However, although Australia also has many resources for renewable energy, some unsuccessful policies that were meant to help in the transition have left Australians paying much higher prices for power than many other countries in the world (Bloomberg). These were mainly a result of policies that weren’t implemented correctly and weren’t implemented soon enough.
Where Do We Fit In?
I know living in the U.S., my own carbon footprint is definitely involved in fueling those deadly fires in Australia. While sometimes this guilt feels overwhelming (I’m holding back tears thinking about the innocent Australian people and animals who have lost their lives as I write this), I also know we live in a society that relies on fossil fuels, and ultimately we need to change that.
I think we can all play a role in making this happen. We need to go to climate crisis rallies, sign petitions (like this one to declare a climate emergency in Buffalo), buy less, and make major lifestyle changes like eating less or no meat, growing much of our own food, travelling less (I’m really trying to work on this one), and maybe most importantly, supporting candidates who care about the planet (more on that in a future blog!).
I would love to be sure I can see Australia again someday like I did from hundreds of feet in the air, at the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. And I hope my children and grandchildren could see it that way someday too. It seems now the fate of this and so many other incredible cities and natural habitats around the world is in our hands.
Sydney Harbour Bridge Info: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-24/sydney-morning-briefing-january-24/11895532