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The Quad: Examining impact of the Australian wildfires, why they are so detrimental

(Claire Guo/Daily Bruin)

By Alexandra Grace Bell

January 23, 2020 6:01 pm

For many areas of the world, including California, fire seasons are a natural and beneficial aspect of the ecosystem. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get out hand.

Since September, the Australian bushfires have done just that, burning more than 15.6 million acres of land.

What’s happening

This fire season is considered to be one of the worst in Australia’s history, according to The New York Times. The article explained that New South Wales declared evacuations for residents and vacationers as early as Jan 2. According to New South Wales’s transport minister Andrew Constance, the evacuations have been one of the greatest relocations in New South Wales history.

While recent rainfall has brought some relief to parts of the country, many fires are still ablaze and the fires are far from over. As of Sunday, The Guardian reported 29 deaths as a result of the blazes.

Not only have thousands of homes burned and millions of people been affected but the ecosystem of the country has been ravaged as well. It is reported that 15.6 million acres have been burned and nearly half a billion animals have died in the bush fires.

Why it’s happening

Australia, like California, naturally burns. However, this “fire season” has experienced several factors that have aligned to create extreme fires, such as high temperatures, winds and drought.

Australia had its hottest day ever recorded Dec. 17, coming in at 105 degrees Fahrenheit. A large portion of the country had higher-than-average forest fire danger index scores, as more than three-quarters of Australia has experienced records for both heat and dryness.

The Guardian listed an irregular sea temperature oscillation, atmospheric variability in the Southern Hemisphere and climate change as factors causing the devastating fires.

What’s being done

The fires are mainly being fought by volunteer firefighters, according to The New York Times. Tens of thousands of firefighters are battling the fires, many of whom work 12-hour shifts. The Australian government announced it would compensate firefighters up to $4,000 each.

Similarly, Australia’s military was deployed and the government has asked for help from other countries. Additionally, both the United States and Canada have been asked to provide water tanker aircraft.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. sent over 100 firefighters over the first few weeks of 2020 with plans to send more – and Canada also sent 36 abroad. In addition, Australian officials have been air dropping sweet potatoes and carrots for the thousands of animals that have been forced to flee their homes because of the fire.

Effects felt at UCLA

Joseph Pinto, a first-year computer science and engineering student, is originally from Perth, the capital of Western Australia.

While Pinto said his family and extended family are not at direct risk of losing their homes, they are affected by poor air quality. Pinto expressed that it is nice to see the national and international support of Australia during a time like this.

“I think it’s surprising how many people have asked me how my family are,” Pinto said. “It wouldn’t have even occurred to me that people would be aware of this sort of thing to the extent that they are.”

Isabelle Gillette, a second-year theater student and Australian citizen, who has lived there for several years, said her networks have been impacted more by than by social unrest than by the blazes themselves.

“It didn’t really affect Brisbane which is the city where I was living,” Gillette said. “But it’s kinda like everyone’s going crazy about the politics of it because the prime minister is doing literally nothing.”

When asked about the financial support internationally, Pinto said he found the judgment of different levels of donations was unexpected.

“I find it interesting people are donation-shaming people like Jeff Bezos (who) gave less than some other people, which is pretty funny.”

The fires have received worldwide attention. One of the most publicized donations was by Kaylen Ward, a 20-year-old California resident and social media influencer, raised an estimated $700,000 by selling nude photos of herself online over a four-day period.

Many celebrities have responded with large donations to the cause, including Liam Hemsworth, Kylie Jenner, P!nk, Novak Djokovic and many more.

Ecological impact

Jon Keeley, an adjunct professor in Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, explained some of the major issues behind the bushfires.

“I’ve been in discussions with colleagues in Australia recently, and they are very concerned about some of their eucalyptus forests,” Keeley said. “They produce seeds that are the only means for recovery after fire and that is an important thing to recognize.”

Keeley said that there are two ways for plants to recover after fire, either re-sprouting, which is sprouting from the base, or recovery from seeds. There are eucalyptus forests, mountain ash, in particular, that people are worried did not have enough time to recover between fires.

“Too much fire, too frequently, is detrimental … there has to be a long period between fires in order to replenish the seed bank,” Keeley said. “What we are seeing both in California and in particular in Australia in the mountain ash forests are plants that have not had enough time to recover from the last fire to replenish the seeds.”

Australia is no stranger to bushfires, but the current situation is causing more devastating effects than the country has seen in recent years. The nation has called for help, and so far, only some have answered.

Gillette felt the attention the bushfires have received is a start, but current efforts pale in comparison to similar calls for aid, such as the efforts to restore the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in April.

As the bushfires continue to burn at alarming rates, Australia looks to the rest of the world for aid and the next several weeks will decide how involved other nations will be in this ongoing climate crisis.

“(The bushfire crisis) has been talked about for sure,” Gillette said. “But people could do so much more.”

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