OPINION: Amid all the chaos, turn your attention to the Australian bushfire disaster


Kamrin Baker 

Australia battles worst-ever wildfires. Graphic by Mars Nevada/The Gateway

It seems that we are living in a world of extremes: an entire continent is on fire, and some of us find it easiest to give the disaster a cold shoulder.

While the Australian bushfire disasters have made their way to prominence, and most of our Twitter feeds are now filled with tear-inducing photos of burned koalas, articles about the very real dangers of climate change and overlain maps of Australia on the United States, this most recent disaster, for lack of a better phrase, has been put on the back burner for most Americans.

With a looming Senate impeachment vote, tight Democratic race and doomsday-like talk of war with Iran, Americans are distracted from one of the most pressing issues to date: raging wildfires in the land down under.

Tom Jamieson, Ph.D, assistant professor of Emergency Management and Disaster Science in CPACS at UNO helped synthesize some information coming from Australia.

“The reality is that while Australia has always had some risk of bushfires, the effects of climate change are amplifying these risks, and unfortunately it is likely that bushfires of this scale will become much more regular,” Jamieson said. “Climate action may help reduce the eventual scale of this problem, but we should expect to see more of these events in the future even if average global temperature increases are held to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050.”

In an article titled “7 things everyone should know about the bushfire disaster” published by Vox, reporters said these fires broke out amid a record-breaking heat wave and are part of a bigger trend that Australia’s fire season is getting longer and more dire.

Omaha native turned Aussie Kendra Coufal has been a medical student (and now doctor) in Australia since 2007, living in Queensland, on the east coast of the country. She said she has seen more patients with asthma exacerbations due to smoky air and observes, “Some days look like the sun didn’t even rise.” Her town has not been directly affected by the devastation, but Coufal is an eye-witness to natural disaster as a resident of Australia.

Coufal works with fellow medical professionals in an emergency medicine course. Photo courtesy of Kendra Coufal.

“According to weather records for past 100 years, this is the driest year on record for Australia,” Coufal said. “Now that the wet season is upon us, we will likely have cyclones that will cause devastating floods. There is no longer a happy medium. People lack water to drink – not just water for washing cars or gardening, but clean, safe drinking water. Farm lands committed to food production are destroyed. Wildlife – unique and wonderful wildlife – are dying by the hundreds and most will go unaccounted for.”

Vox also mentioned the risk of Australia’s wildlife. The country is a “biodiversity hotspot” with around 244 species of mammals that are unique to the land, all facing habitat destruction and individual danger.

A whale swims just off shore in Hervey Bay. Photo courtesy of Kendra Coufal.

It is important to stress the critical nature of this bushfire disaster, but we also must remember that there is hope.

“The communities around the country are banding together to help people, to save homes, to support farmers, to assist fire fighters (many of whom are volunteers, unpaid volunteers), to rescue and rehab wildlife,” Coufal said. “It is a daily task, and communities not directly affected will be indirectly affected. Australia’s land mass is equal to the U.S., but the population is only approximately 25 million. What that means in this context, is that everyone is either directly or indirectly affected by these fires and droughts.”

A koala eats in an Australia zoo. Coufal said: “They are very hard to find in the wild. Most of the ones in the zoo are rehab animals that were found and cared for in captivity. Some may return to the wild, most do not.” Photo courtesy of Kendra Coufal.

While Coufal said there is “six degrees of separation” among folks in Australia, it is vital that others provide disaster relief.

“Obviously the scale of the bushfires and the distance from the events might people feel like they can’t do much to help, but there are several things you can do,” Jamieson said. “First, you can donate to organizations such as Australian Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery fund. Second, I would recommend that you use this opportunity to think about what you can do to prevent similar disasters occurring in your neighborhood. While California and the western United States might spring to mind when thinking about risks of wildfires here, Nebraska is also very vulnerable to wildfires. People can volunteer or intern with the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), the Red Cross, faith-based organizations or meet with local officials to ask them what they can do to help.”

Jamieson also stressed that individuals can contact their elected officials to share their perspectives on combatting climate change and strengthening emergency preparedness procedures.

Compassion fatigue keeps us from investing in issues that may seem distant from us, and amid the very real threat of our own U.S. government, it can feel like small potatoes to “adopt a kangaroo” or participate in international news. I get it. It’s increasingly challenging to care about everything—and you don’t have to—but if we can put out a couple fires, literally and figuratively, we may just find the stamina to create an earth and a society worth fighting for.