Australians Grieve, Protest As Destructive Wildfires Sweep Continent

Fire blazes near a ranch in New South Wales in early January.

Massive fires have raged across Australia since Sept. 2019, leading some in Fayetteville to worry for their friends and family and grieve for the widespread loss of life, property and biodiversity in their home country.

The 2019-20 bushfire season in Australia has been the worst in decades, and 2019 was Australia’s hottest and driest year on record, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

The fires have killed 27 people nationwide and destroyed or damaged over 2,000 homes, primarily in the state of New South Wales, as of Jan. 14. Firefighters across the country are struggling to contain the blazes, which have burned 11.2 million hectares of land, an area approximately equivalent to the state of Mississippi.

Zoe Naylor, a political science lecturer, was raised in suburban Sydney, and most of her family and friends still live in Australia. Although none of Naylor’s loved ones have had property damage, they have been affected by the smoke that has blanketed the southeastern portion of the country, Naylor said. Naylor’s relatives in Canberra, the Australian capital, have been especially hard-hit.

“I have cousins who won’t let their kids go play outside when the smoke is particularly bad,” Naylor said. “That’s, I think, the more direct impact for more Australians. It’s just the inability to breathe, and the real danger of smoke inhalation everywhere.”

Ranil Wickramasinghe, a UA chemical engineering professor who grew up in Australia, visited his family in Melbourne over winter break. Although the wildfires are not near Melbourne, Wickramasinghe said the air was hazier than usual.

Wildfire smoke can irritate the eyes and respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases, according to the CDC. It affects children and the elderly most severely.

Wickramasinghe said there were wildfires when he was growing up, but not at the same frequency and intensity as the fires are today.

“In Australia, it’s really difficult because you never quite know if the winds suddenly change, in which direction the fire will go, and then people who thought they were safe, are not.”

Naylor, whose childhood home lay at the edge of the bush, also said wildfires never reached her house when she was growing up thanks to backburning, a process of controlled burns intended to prevent accidental fires.

Naylor and her relatives think the government has not undertaken enough backburning and other fire prevention measures in recent years, making it partially responsible for the severity of the blazes, Naylor said. Naylor thinks part of the reason for the inaction is the government’s refusal to recognize the severity of climate change, she said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Dec. 12 that climate change has influenced the severity of this wildfire season, but he continues to defend his country’s environmental policies. Morrison’s approval rating fell 19 points from December 2019 to January, according to the most recent poll, published Sunday.

Thousands of protesters marched in several major cities across the country Jan. 10, including Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, calling for the government to act on climate change.

Christopher Dickman, a professor of terrestrial ecology at the University of Sydney, estimates that up to one billion animals have died so far across the country.

Naylor thinks the loss of animal life is especially heartbreaking for Australia because Australians take a particular pride in the diversity and uniqueness of the continent’s wildlife, she said. Naylor hopes the losses from these fires will serve as a wakeup call about environmental policy and fire preparedness in Australia, she said.

“I think that when these animals are lost, then it is really sad for the whole country,” Naylor said. “I think for everyone it’s very sad for all these animals to be killed in a fire that is not the animals’ fault.”

Miranda Stith is a news editor for the Arkansas Traveler, where she previously worked as a reporter from 2018-2019.

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