As part of the launch of our new social network for designers, we made a donation to re-plant trees in Australia for every new board created on our platform through February 19, 2020..  We also wanted to help raise awareness of what has been happening on the ground in Australia and encourage our readers to share this article with their personal networks

 

Australia Bushfires Emergency

At Vishion, we have made a commitment to support our friends in Australia as they deal with what is probably the most devastating wildfire event in global history. Though we have our own experience of devastating wildfires in the States, it is difficult to appreciate the enormous scale of what has been happening in Australia the past several months. Personally, I think nothing is better than a first-hand account to fully understand these experiences. I sat down with a long time friend and colleague, Jane Koitka, to talk about her experience in Australia. At the end of this article, Jane suggests several ways to help Australia right now. We hope you will consider one of those, or, join us in supporting the re-planting of trees in Australia.  Here is the interview. 

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Photo: David Clode

Jane, tell us about your day-to-day experience living in Australia right now.

Things move and change so quickly. On Monday 20th January there were 60 fires burning across the state of New South Wales (NSW) and 16 of them were burning out of control.  On the same day, heavy rain and hailstones lashed parts of the southeast of the country.  Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), was hit the worst by these storms.  The city was pummeled by hail varying between the size of golf balls and grapefruit causing extensive damage to cars, homes, windows, roofs, and valuable research by the CSIRO was destroyed.  The extent of this damage is likely to be the costliest in the state’s history.

Now on the 23rd of January, I listen to the sounds of extreme gusts of wind swirling garden objects in the air, breaking limbs off trees, leaves being stripped from trees, and whole trees being snapped in two.  Large clouds of red and brown dust can be seen on the horizon as the predicted dust storm starts to roll in from the west.

News has just come through that a massive fire has broken out near the Canberra airport.  The airport was closed and residents in the area were warned to find shelter.

Just three days ago there were 60 fires burning in NSW, however, today these strong and treacherous winds have more than doubled that number.  There are now 112 fires in NSW, 22 of which are out of control.  Fires are also still raging in Victoria, South Australia, Kangaroo Island, Tasmania and Western Australia.

At the end of this day, there was another fatal tragedy involving fire fighters.  Three American firefighters died when the water tanker plane they were using to help control fires in the Snowy Mountains crashed.   This has truly been a very sad day and not dissimilar to many others.

There are a lot of mixed emotions coming from those who have been directly affected by the fires and a lot of anxiety for their friends and relatives. Many people have lost everything in the fires, others have lost their businesses, farmers have lost their stock, vineyards that have taken more than 30 years to establish have been lost, not to mention our wildlife.  People are feeling angry, distressed, depressed, lost, sad, anxious, and helpless, whilst being constantly on alert for fire warnings near them.  Nobody can rest or relax; we are all on alert all the time, not knowing if and when we might be next in a fire line.

Many people are angry with local, state and federal governments for their failure to act quickly to increase the support and resources for fire fighters and to provide immediate support for the people and animals severely affected. The governments are deniers of climate change with a very modest policy in place to cut carbon emissions by 2030 and with no visible action to prepare the country for the anticipated effects of climate change.

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Photo: Social Estate

You live in the capital, Canberra. That’s a bit inland from the coast. How is the experience there compared with coastal cities, like Sydney?

Up until yesterday fires were about 50 kms away from the ACT. Yesterday a fire started on the border of the ACT and NSW, today residents in some suburbs are being evacuated and the airport has been closed.

The thick smoke, ash and soot from these fires left Australian cities like Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne with the worst air quality in the world, reaching conditions that were 20 times more polluted than the limit for hazardous pollution levels.  For three weeks I have not been able to leave my house for the intensity of the smoke.  Even with the house all closed up the smoke still seeps through any little crack and the smell of smoke permeates the interior of the home.  People with any respiratory problems have been suffering very badly, and one young woman died soon after she arrived in Canberra from breathing the densely polluted air.  The worst health impacts of these bushfires are yet to come.

People going to work have had to use special P2 masks to protect themselves from the smoke and ash, but retailers soon sold out of the masks.  Couriers and Australian Post were unable to deliver any parcels or mail for over a week. Many other service providers had to limit their outdoor work.

kangaroo in australia
Photo: Michael Waters

And you grew up on a farm near Mudgee. That’s a small, inland town. How are people fairing there?

The smoke from the bushfires has shrouded much of Australia’s inland and even spread across to New Zealand where snow-capped mountains have turned brown or black. There is a constant fear that a fire could break out at any time.  Everyone everywhere is on constant alert.  People have friends or family living in the fire areas and have felt helpless because most areas were/are too dangerous for people to go into. Stress and anxiety have engulfed much of Australia.

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Photo: Jon Tyson

Many people don’t realize that Australia is about the same size as the United States. The landmass is huge, and the fires have somehow covered large areas of the country. Wildfires are common in the U.S. but we mostly hear of them in California or, occasionally, other heavily forested areas of the country (such as the Smokey Mountains, just a few years ago, near where I grew up.) These wildfires, though devastating, have always been isolated to specific regions. We have never seen anything to compare to what Australia is experiencing right now. The fires seem to cover the entire country. What is your opinion about why the fires have become so widespread?

Firstly, let me talk about the areas and size of the fires. Much of Australia is made of deserts, arid or very low rainfall areas.  The Australian deserts make up about 18% of this continent, but 35% of Australia receives so little rainfall it is classified as desert. 70% of the country is classified as arid or semi-arid, which means it gets less than 500 mm of rain a year. It is highly unlikely that fires would start or spread in these parts of the country.  But, this year has been an exception.  In Western Australia, a series of out-of-control bushfires on the Nullarbor Plain cut off the states only sealed (paved) road to South Australia, causing shortages in some Perth (major city in Western Australia) supermarkets and stranding hundreds of trucks and travelers at a remote roadhouse on the Eyre Highway.  This area of the country is flat, almost treeless, arid or semi-arid country of southern Australia, located on the Great Australian Bight coast with the Great Victoria Desert to its north.  My friend’s sons were one of those stranded.  He was attempting to drive from Melbourne to Perth across the Nullabor.   His Mother said “Using Fire Apps on his phone, he navigated around fires and traveled as far as Ceduna which was about halfway across South Australia.  Comparing media reports with on-the-ground intelligence from those stranded amongst the hundreds of cars, caravans, and trucks already held waiting, he concluded that it would not be possible to get across to Perth.  Many trucks had been waiting up to 11 days to get across the country and were experiencing 100% spoilage of their perishable good[s].  The towns closest to the road closures were running out of food and fuel.”

The majority of the population lives on the Eastern Seaboard of Queensland and NSW, and continues around the coastline of Victoria, south and west Australia.  It is our populated areas that have been facing the greatest horrors of this year’s bushfires.   Over 34,000 square miles and over 16 million acres have been ravaged so far (23rd January) since the fires began in September 2019, and it continues to grow.  That’s about one-third of Oregon, the size of West Virginia, six times larger than the Amazon bushfires in 2019 and 80 times larger than the total area burned in the 2019 California wildfires.

Human deaths from these fires have been lower than some previous deadly fires, but estimates of between half to 1 billion wildlife have been destroyed and perhaps the same number of livestock destroyed as well.  One of the most painfully disturbing sounds on television was the screaming of koalas, as they were burnt alive.  These sounds will haunt me for the rest of my life –  it’s beyond heartbreaking.  Approximately 90% of our koala population has been destroyed and many of our wildlife icons may be destroyed forever. Farmers have had to shoot hundreds/thousands of livestock because their burns were too severe for the animals to survive.

The worst fires are burning in Victoria’s east and on the NSW south coast. A state of disaster was declared in Victoria at the beginning of the year and the Navy evacuated about 1,200 trapped tourists and residents from fire-ringed Mallacoota, in East Gippsland Victoria. The town was hit by a massive blaze at the start of the year as 4,000 people sheltered on a beach amid apocalyptic scenes.

 

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Photo: Natalie Su

What is the main thing you think those outside Australia should know about the fires?

  • There has been nothing like this before in Australia
  • Climate change has other forces at play exacerbating destruction
  • The main thing: All countries must be better prepared for devastation and destruction – protect our environment, DON’T neglect it.

In addition, I would like to recognize and acknowledge the generosity of fellow Australians and all the other generous people in the world who have come to our aid.

First and foremost the American and Canadian firefighters arrived late last year and early this year to help support the Australian firefighters.  Firefighters from Papua New Guinea, Fiji and New Zealand have joined the efforts. Japan and France have also offered help.  It is wonderful to know that so many have come to our aid …. we really need it.

Is there a way we can help?

Australia needs help from visionaries and innovators.  New methods and ideas are needed to help drought-proof Australia and make use of the massive volumes of water we receive during cyclones and storms.

Since the fires started many people and organizations have been running fundraisers for food, clothing, and money.

Many celebrities, sports people and businesses from across the globe have either personally donated or have organized auctions and other fundraising methods to help the people and our wildlife.

Other worthwhile organizations raising money for Australia include – Stand Up for Nature; Science for Wildlife; World Wildlife Fund; RSPCA Bushfire Appeal; The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital; Kangaroo Island Koalas and Wildlife Fund.

The RSPCA and Wildlife organizations are calling for volunteers to help rescue wildlife and/or to help feed the wildlife that is left in their burnt-out habitats.

 

About Jane

Jane Koitka is an Australian.  Born in a small country town in central west New South Wales, Mudgee, Jane’s childhood was spent on her parent’s farm where she learned much about the welfare of the land and animals.

Jane enjoyed an interesting and successful career in the Media and Marketing industries throughout Australia and Asia.  She has been known as a trailblazer of innovation in human development, technology systems to improve productivity, measuring return on advertising investments and driving systemic change.

Calling herself an enemy of the ordinary, Jane has always looked for better and more efficient ways of operating in every facet of business and life.  Now a mentor, and business development strategist her interests are keenly focused around governments and political forces.  She continuously promotes human and animal welfare and has undying respect and appreciation for the environment.