My husband is Australian, and we lived in Sydney for 10 years. Both of my sons identify as Australian, and we go back home every year for Christmas with our family. This year was no different, with one exception: The fires raging across the country literally changed the atmosphere there.
We enjoyed our break, but the fires were at the forefront of every conversation. Australians refer to them as “bush fires,” which makes them seem sort of remote from the large coastal cities where most of the population lives. The fact is, they've affected everyone in the country somehow. Our family is safe for the moment, but my in-laws’ cattle property continues to be severely affected by drought. The day we were leaving they had to race back to their farm to pull several cows from a dam. They got stuck there and died in waist high mud while trying to look for water. It’s heart-breaking.
Since returning to Los Angeles, I’ve been repeatedly asked by friends and family here about it, so thought I’d put it all in a post. A Bushfire Primer, if you will. Here’s what you need to know (and what you can do to help):
Where are the fires? Basically everywhere. All 8 Australian states have been affected, with New South Wales and Victoria being the hardest hit. Fire damage is most severe through the bush and outer suburban areas. Still, major city centers like Melbourne and Sydney have been affected by smoke, and the air quality nationwide is considered dangerous.
How many people have died or have been injured as a result of the fires? Over 25 million acres have burned so far, and the flames are still raging. So far, 28 people have died, including two young volunteer firefighters trying to escape a firestorm in their truck.
But aren’t there always bushfires in Australia? Yes, but nothing on this scale. The worst fire season on record was 2009 when 173 people died in Victoria on “Black Saturday.” The bad news is that Australia is only halfway through its annual fire season, which usually ends in February.
What about the koalas? The latest estimates say a billion animals have been lost to the deadly fires in Australia, including 25,000 of their cutest marsupials, most of them on Kangaroo Island. It’s estimated that one-third of Australia’s koala population has been lost.
Why are these 2019 fires so bad? In a word, it’s drought. Since 2017, Australia has had record-breaking heat and historically low rainfall. That means a buildup of leaf litter and non-native plants that can’t survive the harsh Australian weather. There have been widespread protests to get the Government to walk away from their reliance on coal and other fossil fuels, believed to be one of the major factors in climate change.
I heard that the fires were really started by 200 Arsonists? Nope. Only a handful of fires were deliberately ignited. But that didn’t stop people from spreading misinformation.
What’s this “Back Burning” thing? “’Fire Stick Farming’ or ‘Cultural Burning’” is the practice by Australia’s indigenous people. It involves being able to “read the land” and then implement a controlled burn. This kind of managed burning encourages native plant growth and also eliminate excess leaf litter, which, left unattended, can lead to the kind of uncontrollable fires that we see now. The Australian Government hasn’t really embraced the practice at the federal level, which has lead to an outcry to employ Aboriginal Leaders to help it adopt this practice.
We came across this amazing woman in Sydney; Turia Pitt (herself a burn victim from a previous bushfire). She started an Instagram account, @spendwiththem to support Australian businesses devastated by the fires. Brands can reach out to Pitt’s team asking to be featured and Spend With Them posts an image and their profile. “Everyone in Australia is desperate to help out in any way they can,” says Pitt. “The beautiful thing is—it’s working. People are buying from these gorgeous small businesses and there is money going directly into their pockets now.”
The account posted for the first time on January 5th, and already has 187,000 followers. That kind of willingness to help each other out is woven throughout Australian culture. It’s what they call “Mateship.”
Here at Murchison-Hume, we will be donating 10% of all proceeds towards relief funds through the end of January.
Good on ‘ya Australia,