As 2019 reached the month of September, few of us were aware of the potential destruction of the fires burning around Australia, and the effect that it would have on our daily lives going forward. By December, the reality for Sydneysiders was waking daily to a city full of smoke with concerning levels of particulate matter small enough to enter a person’s lungs and bloodstream, which can trigger heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and asthma attacks.
Dr Christine Cowie, a senior fellow at the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research at the University of NSW said in December that while some studies were underway, there was limited research looking into when a city is blanketed in smoke for weeks like Sydney. “No one can say definitively what happens after a two-month exposure to those high levels, other than if you’re susceptible, you’re likely to have increased respiratory problems,” she said. Australia’s air quality was so bad, it was equated to smoking more than 30 cigarettes per day.
As we now approach the end of January, the catastrophic and destructive forces of the fires have truly become apparent. Estimates suggest that more than 10,000,000 hectares or 39,000 square miles of Australia are now scorched, with scientists fearing that over a billion animals have died. Footage of firefighters and volunteers chasing down koalas, kangaroos, possums and other animals to rescue them are broadcast daily on news services. School gymnasiums, people’s homes and military ‘tent hospitals’ are being used to care for what’s left of Australia’s fauna as ideas such as introducing compatible species to nearby countries including New Zealand are being considered.
The loss of human life has also been significant. By January 19, the reported number of lives lost to the fires stands at 29. It’s hard to believe that the number is so small, given the enormity of the disaster in progress, but Australia has sadly been through enough fire seasons for the general public to be relatively well educated on the topic. Many residents of rural and semi-rural areas have well thought out plans in place for when the warnings and emergency declarations are issued by authorities.
It’s easy to feel helpless in a time such as this, however Australians have been nothing short of stunned by the global response to the bushfires. An Australian social media personality, Celeste Barber, established a fundraising page on Facebook in early January, with an initial goal of raising AUD$30,000 for the NSW Rural Fire Service. With six million followers, Barber’s page skyrocketed to triple that number within hours and was increasing at a rate that no one thought was possible. The fundraiser eventually reached AUD $51,299,348 AUD (~USD$35.2m) and has been declared the largest fundraising effort conducted on Facebook to date. To put that into perspective, the 2017-18 annual report for the NSW Rural Fire Service and Brigades Donation Fund reported that a total of AUD$768,044 was donated in that year. Perhaps 2020 will go down in history as a turning point when social media became a genuine force for good.
The momentum of the global fundraising and expressions of support from other countries is still in full swing. Australia has never seen this much inbound financial support for an event such as this, which has introduced a new problem – how to ensure that money is distributed to the organisations and efforts that need it most. International organisations such as The Red Cross, The Salvation Army, The World Wildlife Fund and many others have joined forces with Australian organisations such as NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service to help collect money and to distribute it to assist those that have been impacted, whether they be people, animals, organisations, schools and communities. Charities are scrambling to be able to provide receipts for the enormous amounts of money being contributed by the global community.
Many Australian firefighters that work on these fires are, to the surprise of many, volunteers.
These are normal Australians, that put themselves in harm’s way to protect the property, land and communities of others. In many circumstances these heroes will be standing with a fire hose in their hand, protecting someone’s house while their own home burns a few kilometres away. A particularly sad aspect of this bushfire season is the death of a number of these firefighters, and that’s where I would like you to consider another type of charity – helping the families of these heroes recover from the loss of their primary income at a time when they are dealing with the loss of the head of their family unit. Some of these people have wives and small children, that are now devastated by the loss of a husband and father. Once the smoke clears, these families face a very difficult future. The NSW government has created a number of officially registered charities where the public can make donations directly to these families to help stabilise their future.