An untimely demise that has been building up for quite some time: Australia's bushfires

Australian firefighters during the 2013 bushfire season

**The human inhabitants of Australia have been heavily affected by the bushfires; this post is not meant to diminish their ongoing struggles. People have lost homes, cultural connections, loved ones, had their lives disrupted, and suffered from terrible air quality. My blog angles may be different from what is currently in the media because I believe it’s important to increase awareness on the living beings who don’t have a voice and aren’t necessarily the first receivers of aid.**

For the first time in my life, I am sitting at my desk burning a candle. Its golden, flickering halo is a stark contrast to my technology’s harsh, white light. And while this singular flame gives my room a peaceful atmosphere, halfway across the world, raging infernos are changing Australian lives for the worse. 

2019 was quite a fiery year for anyone who paid attention to the news. Wildfires plagued California, #PrayforAmazonia trended on social media, and now the bushfires are incessantly burning in Australia. 

An estimated 8,000 koalas, or 30 percent of the koalas in New South Wales, may have perished. 480 million other animals, estimated based on a 2007 WWF land clearing report, may also be dead. At least 12 million acres and counting have been burned. 

Many news outlets have highlighted the sheer enormity of damage by comparing the size of Australia’s fires to the geographical sizes of England, New Hampshire + Vermont, and size of the California and Amazon fires. Both respective fire area coverages in California and the Amazon constitute about one-tenth of the Australian fire area coverage — a massive difference. 

It’s particularly painful when I think about all the helpless animals that are unable to move faster than fire or find safe refuge. A video of an Australian woman rescuing a koala — later dubbed “Lewis” — from the fire, pouring water over him, and taking him to a koala rescue center went viral. The hope of a second chance and Lewis’s heart-wrenching cries during rescue only made it more upsetting when the koala rescue center announced that they had to euthanize him due to the severity of his burns. 

The quality of life issue is hotly debated in internet comments, but objectively, Lewis’s peaceful death makes him far luckier koala compared to many more animals who are either being burned alive or slowly dying from their injuries. 

If human suffering during natural disasters seems terrible, animal suffering is often worse and goes unreported. In California, the Camp and Kincade fires resulted in animal evacuations, pet-owner separation, and even loss of life when pets were unable to escape their homes or fled in panic. In Amazon, while the fires threaten native land and air quality, animals in unique ecosystems are displaced or killed.    

It’s a simple fact of life that animals will die in natural disasters, yet animal losses are more likely to receive media coverage when they hold emotional significance. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate mainstream media for bringing these subjects to light, garnering monetary or voluntary support for our shelters. We should celebrate every reunion, every rehabilitation success story, but we should also mourn the deaths and suffering of all animals, not just our pets or flagship species. 

Animals also die all the time in nature, in tsunamis, earthquakes, and storms. Only the strongest, or luckiest, survive. There are situations, however, that seem unfairly twisted. For example, there is comparatively less coverage on the loss of Australian livestock compared to the coverage on Australian wildlife. Hundreds of livestock have died because they were trapped in structures or behind fences. From the human perspective, farmers will struggle to rebuild their businesses, bury their dead animals, and find ways to sustain their surviving cows and sheep. But from the animal perspective, many of these animals were bred for human use and their industry contributes to the destruction of habitat and climate change. 

Unfortunately, the survival of the remaining animals is also not guaranteed, since the fires have wiped out their homes. Intact ecosystems may struggle to support the pressures of increased demand. The diversity of and relationships within Australia’s ecosystems cannot be fully examined in a blog post, but thorough destruction may result in years before these habitats can rebuild.

The response around the world to Australia’s fires has been overwhelmingly sympathetic, some heartbroken, with others up in arms demanding change. Veterinarians are taking action by providing their services, many voluntarily, to protect and heal Australian animals. Mogo Zoo staff members bravely fought the flames and even housed primates in their own homes to ensure the zoo animals would survive. Operation Rock Wallaby has been dropping sweet potatoes and carrots from helicopters in hopes of feeding rock wallabies. Even in the United States, veterinarians have started to raise money to aid Australian wildlife. 

Donations have poured into Australian organizations all around the world. To help the Australian people, please consider donating directly to Australian fire departments, the Red Cross, and First Nations communities on their websites. To help the Australian wildlife please consider donating to: Koala Hospital of Port Macquarie NSW, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Australia (RSPCA), Vets Beyond Borders, World Wildlife Fund Australia, Zoos Victoria, and Wildlife Information, Rescue, and Education Service Australia (WIRES).     

Although bushfires in Australia are nothing new and can be integral to the ecosystem, the intensity and severity of more recent bushfires have been linked to climate change. 

Why climate change, when fire can be caused by arson, lightning, downed power lines, and recreation? While changing climate does not necessarily cause fires, it can set up conditions that proliferate and sustain the blazes. The core links between increased fires and climate change are hot and dry conditions, according to Time. This means climate change creates plenty of fuel available to burn in areas that were historically unaffected or mildly affected. 

For more information on a potential link between wildfire and climate change, check out Yale Climate Connections’ article on a more detailed theory 

Fire Note, published jointly by Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre and Australasian Fire Authorities Council, addressed the link between climate change and its impact on bushfire management way back in 2006. According to Fire Note, Australia’s 2005 mean temperature was 1.09 Celsius higher than the standard 1961-1990 average, which was “equivalent to many southern Australian towns shifting northward by about 100 km” (keep in mind that Australia is below the equator so shifting north means moving towards a more equatorial environment). Southeast Australia was also identified as one of the three most fire-prone areas of the world, along with southern California and southern France.  

For more information on a potential positive feedback loop between wildfire and climate change, check out Time’s article 

According to Fire Note, while southeast Australia has the potential to become drier, northern Australia is reportedly increasing its amount of rainfall over the past century; a pattern that aligns with predicted increased greenhouse gas climate models. Although Fire Note was a report from 2006, over the past decade we have experienced increasingly extreme conditions that are a by-product of climate change. 

In the past 140 years, nine of the ten hottest Julys have occurred since 2005, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The hottest temperature set for Africa in 2018 was 124 Fahrenheit in Algeria, and July 2019 was the hottest month on record for the planet. 

(Image credit: National Centers for Environment Education)

Additionally, National Geographic has reported a potential link between warmer Arctic temperatures and colder North American winters. Other major changes, such as prolonged fire season, changes in precipitation patterns, and more powerful storms and hurricanes, are causing billions of dollars in damage around the globe. These findings imply that the youth are growing up in a drastically changing and heating world that — not to be pessimistic — seems to become more dire by the year. 

Read this Forbes article to learn in more detail how colder winters are caused by global warming

Reports foreshadowing the consequences of climate change and studies documenting the anthropogenically accelerated changes on our planet have been ignored for years. But in the past year, climate change has become a buzzword, partly thanks to the youth, who have been inspired to rally for more action in record-breaking numbers. 

Why is it necessary for damage to the people of a privileged, “first world” nation to occur or videos of dramatic fire tornadoes and suffering cute animals to circulate for people to initiate thought and action? I remember learning about climate change in elementary school, yet my community has not enacted substantial change in attitude, education, or action since then. Even now, when people are turning out in droves demanding a systematic overhaul, their voices seem to be bouncing in an echo chamber. 

While the plight of the koalas has brought in thousands of donations to rescue centers and raised awareness on how climate change and habitat destruction affect animals, it is not enough. Even though every penny is greatly valued in a monetary donation, and every condolence post on social media is appreciated, it is not enough to just donate what one can and continue with one’s life without reevaluating how one impacts the environment for the positive or negative. To anybody who reads this, I hope you can take some time to think about how natural disasters can affect the animals in your communities, how natural disasters may be shifted by climate change, and how a single person’s actions can have a positive ripple effect in combating climate change. 

Sources: BBC, The Telegraph, Fire Note, Scientific American, The Verge, News.com, The University of Sydney, SBS News, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Forbes, National Geographic, World Resources Institute, Time, Yale Climate Connections, Reuters, Wall Street Journal, Animal Ethics, The Atlantic, CNN

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