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THE STATUS OF THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRES

“THE STATUS OF THE AUSTRALIAN BUSHFIRES”

Australia Day Lunch Speech delivered by
A
lastair J M Walton
Consul-General of Australia, New York
At The Modern at MOMA, New York
January 17, 2020

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Ladies and Gentlemen

It is an honour but I can’t honestly say a pleasure to address you today about the bushfires which are ravaging Australia. These bushfires with their devastating impact on the human and natural environment have certainly captured the world’s attention.

At the Australian Consulate-General we have been overwhelmed by the generosity of Americans and Australians who have been calling to give us their best wishes, financial support and even professional firefighters who have offered their help on behalf of our nation. I and my colleagues have been truly touched by this support.

We have all seen images of these unprecedented bushfires in newspapers, the nightly news and on social media.

However I thought it would be useful to give a detailed and updated perspective on just how significant a human and environmental tragedy this is, unprecedented in our nation’s history.

So let’s start at the beginning.

Bushfires are a natural part of the environmental cycle in Australia and in fact much of our flora actually needs these fires to regenerate. This has taken place over tens of thousands of years.

However, as we know Australia is 35% desert[i] and therefore since European settlement 233 years ago there has been a relatively narrow corridor on the Eastern Seaboard which has developed into an interconnected ecosystem of urban development, rural communities and national parks.

One of the delights of flying over Australia is seeing this wonderful collage of beautiful native forests, stunning rural properties and cities which “abounds in nature’s gifts of beauty, rich and rare”.

During my regular telephone calls back to Australia I often hear our native birds in the background, making one quite homesick.

From time to time this collage is impacted by the combination of droughts and hot weather and we have certainly had our fair share of bushfire tragedies in the past, including Ash Wednesday in 1983, and Black Saturday in 2009.

However the current bushfires are unprecedented in their sheer scale and level of destruction. When we see terrible fires in places like California and Canada there is a firefighting approach and expertise centred on the use of water-bombing and aircraft.

The problem for Australia is that our firefighting techniques are different in that we really don’t have any significant water-based natural support systems to draw on.

Firefighting in Australia relies on back burning, pre-clearing and the creation of fire lanes which are far more limited in their scope and dangerous to engineer in the midst of existing fires, which are exacerbated by changeable weather and wind conditions.

We have seen a severe drought impacting the Eastern Seaboard from Queensland to Victoria which has impacted traditionally high rainfall areas such as New England. I speak from personal experience here.

My fiancé and I first met in New England and I quickly fell in love with this beautiful part of Australia. Berry’s property in Inverell New South Wales which was a Garden of Eden when I first became a diplomat four years ago, is now tragically barren and has been without rain for 18 months.

Today it is like visiting the moon and this has
had a huge financial impact on farmers and the rural community in general.

There has been about 40% less rainfall over the entire country for the past 2 years than is normally the case[ii]. This is the worst drought in Australia in the past 100 years.

Further, this has now been dramatically exacerbated by the highest temperatures on record in many parts of the country, creating a unique risk for the outbreak of bushfires[iii].
Worse still the bushfire season, as we call it, is typically in February and as such, without significant rain these bushfires are going to get worse not better over the next 6 weeks at least.

At the Australian Consulate-General we like you have been getting a lot of information from the media but in our case, also official briefings from the relevant Government agencies.

What has been quite remarkable is how quickly this information is changing and for the worse.

It was only a week ago that the bushfires had covered an area of 20 million acres, already 10 times worse than the recent California bushfires[iv]. Within days this has increased to 40 million acres.

At this point there are no projections of when this bushfire season will end but irrespective, it will be an unfortunate world record of devastation.

For a comparator 40 million acres is roughly twice the size of Switzerland or Iceland, 4 times Costa Rica and 20 times Jamaica.

Similarly it was only 2 weeks ago that we read an estimate that 480 million animals and other wildlife had been destroyed but already the new estimates are over 1 billion[v], which frankly is impossible to get your head around.

On the human side, we have tragically lost 28 fellow Australians, including 6 brave firefighters. Almost 3,000 homes have been destroyed[vi].

There are currently more than 3,000 volunteer firefighters engaged in fighting these fires and these heroes have been bolstered by Canadians, New Zealanders and over 200 Americans, and we are seeing more volunteers offering their assistance every day.

These bushfires have clearly had a major impact on air quality.

On 1 January 2020 Canberra’s air quality was rated the worst in the world, surpassing Delhi, with an air quality index more than 22 times the most hazardous rating, resulting from smoke from the NSW South Coast bushfires[vii]. Air quality index readings in the ACT's southern station at Monash was 4,650 — more than 23 times the most hazardous level of 200[viii].

In certain areas air quality has improved somewhat but remains in the “Poor to Hazardous’ category across most of New South Wales (as at 16 January 2020)[ix]. However this week the hazardous smoke returned, blanketing Melbourne, Victoria – rating its air quality as the most polluted in the world – more than 5 times the hazardous level of 200[x].

Further we have seen fires on a national scale rather than our typical regional fires which have simply overwhelmed our firefighters and first responders.
 

So what can we do?

Well actions speak louder than words, and actions there have been. Throughout this great country, Australians and Americans have been undertaking fundraising events to provide financial assistance to our rural communities, our firefighters and those engaged with the preservation of wildlife and national parks. I can’t thank you enough for these spontaneous gestures of support.

In fact there were more than a dozen fundraising initiatives over the past week in New York alone organised by

  • Bourke St Bakery
  • Hutch and Waldo
  • Bluestone Lane
  • Aussie Baked Treats
  • The New York Magpies
  • The New York Islanders
  • Boundless Plains Espresso
  • F45 Training
  • Moulin Rouge
  • The Flowershop
  • Two Hands
  • Banter
  • Sonnyboy
  • Abbortsford Road
  • Good Thanks, and
  • The AAA has also converted its annual Arts Awards dinner on 30 January 2020 in support of bushfire relief.

 

Even the dancers at the American Ballet Theatre, itself a not-for-profit organisation have come together to raise money for this so Kara please go back to them with my personal thanks.

Last week I had dinner with Senator Steve Daines of Montana who advised that cattle ranchers in his State wanted to donate hay to help our rural communities feed their livestock.

Unfortunately this remarkable gesture was inconsistent with our own biosecurity regulations but the important point is that a busy Senator went out of his way to try to assist our agricultural community on behalf of his constituents.

Further I am more than aware that many other Australians and Americans have given very substantial donations directly to the appropriate charities and agencies.

For example the CEO of Morgan Stanley, fellow Aussie James Gorman, donated
USD $1 million to the bushfire relief[xi]. So today I am going to give him a big shout-out and thanks for his extraordinary generosity.

I am also pleased to announce that on 10 March 2020 the Australian Consulate-General will be holding a major black-tie bushfire relief dinner at Chinese Tuxedo, a culinary institution in New York.

Eddy Buckingham, the owner of Chinese Tuxedo, will create a special degustation menu and wine at entirely his own cost so that all proceeds can go to those in need. I can’t thank Eddy enough for his generosity which I hope will continue to be matched by the broader Australian and American communities. We will be sending out a save-the-date in the coming days.
 

For those who want to give, the Australian Government has published a list of endorsed charities[xii]. The link to these charities is shown on the slide and we have also put it on our Facebook page. If anybody needs any assistance in this area we will be more than happy to give you a hand.

LIST OF DGR-endorsed, Registered Charities with Bushfire Relief and
Recovery activities

https://www.bushfirerecovery.gov.au/offers-help

 

In conclusion today we recognise all of those impacted by this terrible tragedy and thank all of those who have given their support. We all pray that a recent heavy downpour in New South Wales continues and broadens its reach to the rest of the bushfire effected areas.

Thank you and may god bless our two great countries.