Australian wildfires know no mercy

It has been a calamitous start to 2020 for the nation of Australia, battling an enormous natural disaster along with the subsequent humanitarian and wildlife conservation challenge, writes Noel Bardon.

Firefighters are waging a formidable battle against this deadly force of nature, with local firefighters being joined by units from the United States, Canada and New Zealand. Much of their effort is aimed at rerouting the fires’ path around areas of settlement and habitation rather than extinguishing them, as the intensity of the flames is simply too extreme to do so. Many fighting the fires are volunteering their service, members of part-time brigades are making up large numbers in the effort to get the situation under control.

An estimated one billion vertebrate animals have perished in the blaze, as a result of starvation or having had their habitats fully destroyed. This figure was approximated using the death toll evaluated for the province of New South Wales and includes both wild and domesticated animal species. The devastation wreaked upon certain native species is only coming to light, as surveys of special ecological areas are being conducted by experts. It has been announced that the koala, a historic icon of Australia, is in danger of extinction. These marsupials have had their populations, which are heavily dependent on mature forests, decimated by the flames and smoke. Major rescue and conservation efforts are underway for the koalas and other wild animals, with thousands of kilograms of vegetables being dropped from helicopters each day in an effort to deliver a food source to the vulnerable animals.

Many rural communities have been hardest hit, particularly the sheep and cattle farming province of New South Wales, holding one third and one fifth of the national populations of these species respectively. It is likely that economic hardship will ensue, compounding upon the poor financial returns achieved by many farmers in the record-breaking period of drought that preceded the current wildfires.

With many of the wildfires ravaging the country of Australia raging since the month of August, the scale of the destruction has been seen to increase dramatically in the months of November and December. It is thought that 6.3 million hectares have been scorched so far, and the over 100 fires that still burn are only starting to slow as they exhaust fuel reserves and encounter slightly increased moisture levels on ground after the recent rainfall.

The numbers of livestock perishing in the blaze is likely to rise. Many animals are being euthanised to end suffering from severe smoke inhalation and burn damage. Disturbances caused by the fires are also leading to major animal welfare problems, as abortion of calves following heat stress and the current shortage of feed, will place extreme strain on the health status of livestock in the months to come. 

Estimates suggest that the price of red meat and other animal products may rise by as much as 50% in the nation’s supermarkets. Dairy processors have hinted that supermarkets may be willing to increase milk prices for the first time in over a year for the purpose of handing on the extra revenue to struggling dairymen. The Australian government has pledged to support the farming communities rebuilding their livelihoods after the tragedy in the form of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, with an initial budget allocation of $2 billion. Payments of up to $75,000 per farmer will be made immediately by the government to farmers and other primary producers badly hit, such as those involved in grape growing, horticulture and aquaculture industries. This sum will help to cover the cost of individuals restocking their farms, repairing fences and erecting sheds. The existing drought response, resilience and preparedness plan may also play a role in the attempts to return those areas worst affected back to some semblance of normality. 

Numerous charitable organisations have joined an enormous surge of goodwill payments to aid in the disaster relief operations underway. Many donations have been made to the Rural Fire Service units in New South Wales and elsewhere, unfortunately for the victims of the bushfires, these donations, totalling tens of millions of dollars, may not legally be transferred to the devastated individuals and communities, but will have to be used exclusively for the purposes of funding the fire services.