By now, we’ve all heard the news. Since September, about 14.5 million acres of rural Australia have gone up in flames, from hardest-hit New South Wales down to Tasmania and across to Western Australia. Per the New York Times, it’s “more than triple the area destroyed by the 2018 fires in California, and six times the size of the 2019 fires in Amazonia.”
The numbers prompt a double take: At least 25 people have died, 2,000 homes destroyed. One billion animals estimated to be gone and koalas begging for water in the middle of the road. In January, a third of South Australia’s Kangaroo Island, a popular wildlife spot for local and foreign tourists alike, was on fire; emergency warnings remain in place for parts. Adelaide’s wine hills have been hard hit as well, with more than 60 growers and producers affected. Smoke has reached the cities of Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne, and though there was respite this past weekend with cooler weather and some rain, firefighters are bracing for temperatures to rise again this Friday. After all, the summer season is only just beginning.
It’s not Australia’s first brush with massive bushfires—far from it—but it’s one of the worst. And if any of this sounds familiar to Californians, it might have been preventable. The hard work is only starting. Here’s what to know whether you have a trip planned or you’re watching from afar and tired of feeling helpless.
What to know about traveling to Australia during peak fire season
Let’s start with the obvious: Not all of Australia is ablaze. “Canceling trips to Australia because of fires is like canceling a trip to New York because of fires in California,” quotes Craig Wickham, managing director of Exceptional Kangaroo Island, on his Facebook page, where he has been updating the community on the response to Kangaroo Island blaze. (Of note: Wickham says “the entire valley on the western side [of the island] looks like it always does this time of year and some of that fabulous wallaby habitat has survived. There are significant areas burned but we know from previous experience these little pockets of green are so important. Let’s hope these refuges remain . . .”)
If you have a trip planned to Oz now through February—peak season—“your first action should be to contact the travel advisor and travel company you worked with to plan your travels,” writes Ian Swain II, vice president of Swain Destinations, which specializes in trips to Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Asia, and India. “They will have direct communication lines with suppliers and partners throughout the country with access to raw, non-sensationalized information. Australia is a large country, much of it rural. These bushfires are largely devastating these rural areas.”
If you didn’t book through an agent or operator, check in with your accommodation or the regularly updated Tourism Australia site. All international airports are operating normally, it says, and TA has a list of popular tourist destinations that have been affected by the fires. As of January 8, the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, the South Coast of New South Wales, Kangaroo Island, and the Golden Outback in Perth were the only 4 of 28 destinations designated “impacted,” while Canberra is marked as “impacted by smoke haze.” (The air quality index was poor at the start of January but has improved.)
Visitors we spoke with who just returned from Australia have commented less on how bushfires affected their trip, and more about how they’re saddened by what the fires are doing to a place they fell in love with. Local tour operators and travel agents we spoke with have all echoed the same sentiment: Please come.
“Donating and/or visiting is one of the best things travelers can do right now,” says Janine Duffy, owner and operator of Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours. “If you already have travel plans, keep them—modify if you have to, but still come. If you don’t have travel plans, make some. We need travelers. . . . The Australian tourism industry is one of a few big-earning industries that stands up for koalas. [It] generates as much income as mining. [It] employs nearly 1 million Australians (three times what mining employs). Travelers, and the travel industry, stand up for koalas when no one else does.”
What’s happening to the koalas?
“I won’t sugarcoat this though—our wildlife has suffered terribly,” says Duffy. “The only good thing that can come of this is renewed determination to address climate change, improve forestry practices, and stop fossil fuel mining. The estimated 1 billion animals we have lost to this monster can’t have died in vain.” Of those billion, koalas have been disproportionately hurt, and the population is declining and vulnerable, according to scientists.
But there’s much travelers can do, like “fund koala research, koala tree planting, and invasive weed removal in a koala habitat,” says Duffy. “Our not-for-profit, Koala Clancy Foundation, coordinated 1,800 volunteers in 2019 to plant the trees, remove the weeds, and advocate for koalas Australia-wide.”
We are not the only examples of this, she adds, calling out locally owned tourism businesses with an important conservation program that travelers can support:
- In Western Australia, Naturaliste Charters and Exmouth Dive & Whalesharks and Wildlife Coast Cruises in Victoria are all involved in important whale, dolphin, whale shark, manta ray, or seal research.
- FNQ Nature Tours in Queensland is heavily involved in wildlife rescue.
- South Australia’s Arkaba Conservancy restores native habitats and controls pests on a vast scale. Exceptional Kangaroo Island is active in community and industry development around conservation.
- “We recommend donating to these koala charities that are investing in tree planting and ensuring that koalas have a future: Koala Clancy Foundation (Victoria) and Bangalow Koalas (New South Wales),” she adds. “Even from home, everyone can help. Anything that slows climate change helps our koalas. Tree planting in North America, Europe, Asia, South America helps koalas. Trees suck up the carbon that is causing these fires.”
How to donate and help from home
Locals have also recommended donating to these vetted organizations to support firefighters, relief efforts, and wildlife recovery:
Australian Red Cross—funds recovery programs and emergency assistance
Victorian Government Bushfire Appeal—money goes directly to the families and communities affected by the fires in the state of Victoria
NSW Rural Fire Service—donations go to the families of New South Wales volunteer firefighters who have been killed while on duty
Animals Australia—direct support for wildlife vets to travel to affected areas to help surviving animals
Warriors 4 Wildlife—not-for-profit rescue organization dedicated to helping sick, injured, orphaned, or abandoned animals
This story is developing. We will continue to update it with the latest information.
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