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Australia is on Fire

This winter break the island continent of Australia has faced perhaps its worst year in modern memory regarding wildfires. What started off as an early start to wildfire season quickly became a global disaster with unprecedented destruction. According to Create Digital, an Australian news source, the wildfires began on the 29th of October in Gosper Mountain. The fire was reportedly sparked by a lightning bolt. The resulting blaze became the largest fire sparked by a single ignition point in Australian history burning 444,000 ha (hectare). One ha is equivalent to 10,000 square meters. Though eventually extinguished, this marked the beginning of a deadly wildfire season. Two days later the first death caused by wildfires was reported near Cattai. As the season continued into November, the continent became increasingly active with wildfires on the North and South-Eastern sides of the country. 

Wildfires continued to blaze throughout December and January with the most fire activity occurring during the first week of January. A report from NPR on January 6th showed that 25 people had been killed this season, making it the deadliest season on record. Likewise, the damage to wildlife and livestock are still being tallied. From the date of this report, it is “estimate[d] that nearly half a billion animals perished in the state of New South Wales alone.” The state of New South Wales is a large territory in the South East corner of the country that bore the brunt of the devastation having active fires throughout the entirety of the season.

The massive loss of livestock could potentially have a devastating effect on the Australian economy. Specifically, since the areas most affected by the fires are regions where the red meat industry is especially prevalent. New South Wales and the northern states alone account for over 70% of the industry. According to Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), the declared marketing body for the industry, the “gross value of Australian cattle and calf production (including live cattle exports) in 2017–18 was $11.4 billion” making it almost 2% of the entire country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The industry also employs over 190,000 people annually. These numbers do not account for other livestock or farm products such as dairy and chickens.

Farmers are also coping with losing more than just their animals. In most cases where a herd is killed by the fires much of the property is also lost such as the hay needed to feed the surviving animals, the fields where they graze, and in some cases even the buildings that house them. BBC interviewed Belinda and Travis Attree, cattle farmers near Corryong, which is located halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. The two along with their children fled when the fires started burning through their property. When the family returned they “found 11 dead cows and 9 that were too injured to keep.” Besides their cattle the Attrees lost “all their hay, the hay shed, another shed full of football memorabilia, two boats, and an all-terrain vehicle.”

The Attrees tragedy is all too common in the wake of this devastating wildfire season. Thousands of farmers were forced to flee their homes only to return to the charred remains of their livelihoods. All across the country, cattle and dairy farmers are facing tremendous pressure as the financial losses keep piling up one after another. Communities are banding together to try and relieve some of the pressure by donating hay to affected farmers or offering grazing land for free or at extremely low rates. As families like the Attrees continue to tally the losses, financial and emotional, biologists and environmentalists worry that an even larger disaster is underway.

Along with the death in livestock, millions of wild animals have perished in the blaze. Experts are particularly concerned because Australia is home to over 400 unique mammal species alone. For species like the koala bear, that were already endangered before the start of the wildfire season, the continual destruction of its habitats has now driven it to functional extinction. The Federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley stated that “nearly a third of all koalas in New South Wales have died and about a third of their habitat has been destroyed.” With the fires burning over 48 million acres collectively and with some still blazing, the death toll is expected to rise among humans and animals alike, but as the season comes to a close the amount and intensity of the fires are expected to decline.

Sources: BBC, Created Digital, NPR, MLA, CNN

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