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The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

WIS Students Fundraise for Devastating Australia Bushfires

In response to the bushfires threatening New South Wales, two Australian WIS students started a major fundraising effort to help the recovery of the areas destroyed by the fires.

Bushfires have long plagued the country’s arid landscapes, which are covered by forests of extremely flammable Eucalyptus trees. This year’s bushfire season is the most devastating in Australian history, plunging the country into an ecological and humanitarian crisis. 

Hank Harris, a WIS junior and Canberra native, described the 2019-2020 bushfire season, which was the most destructive in the New South Wales region. “This year’s is particularly bad. There have been millions and millions of hectares of land lost and there are several species, especially the koala population, who are at risk of almost extinction because of the monumental habitat loss,” Harris said.

According to the Busselton-Dunsborough Mail, approximately 18.6 million hectares have burned and over 5,900 buildings were destroyed. 34 people have died as a result of the fires. 

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The most recent fire threat to Canberra left the Australian capital in a potentially disastrous situation. Harris, who visited his hometown over winter break, described the impacts of the fires on the city.

“The entire time we were there, schools were closed, as was my dad’s job, and the only mall in the city was closed because of such hazardous smoke levels from nearby fires,” Harris said. 

Since Harris returned to the United States, however, the threat to Canberra has intensified. At one point, his family’s home was only 300 meters from the fires.

“Since coming back, they’ve pushed really close to where me and my family live,” Harris said.  

Iris Cooper, another student at WIS who hails from Canberra, has also been affected by the fires and the hazardous smoke they produce, which threaten her family’s home in the capital. The fires in Canberra also endanger many Australians who fled their homes to seek shelter in the Australian Capital Territory. 

“A lot of my family friends, now I think its three, have lost their homes and they went to Canberra to seek refuge, but they now think they have to leave Canberra because of this increase in risk,” Cooper said.

In response to the fires, Harris and Cooper have set up several fundraisers at WIS to raise money for organizations in Australia that are helping to extinguish the fires and rebuild the destroyed areas in New South Wales. 

To fundraise, the two juniors have planned several different activities including an Australian-themed bake sale,cricket games, and “Dress Up Like an Australian Day” where students bring in donations and the person with the best Australian costume wins a prize. 

“Our hopes are to continue this over the semester,” Cooper said.

Cooper and Harris are planning on contributing to three major organizations that are helping  combat the fires. Among these organizations is the Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service (WIRES). WIRES is the largest wildlife rescue organization in Australia and it has benefited substantially from international contributions.

“[WIRES] used to work exclusively in New South Wales but because of the support they’ve been given they’ve been working to rehabilitate animals from across the country,” Harris said.

The second organization they are donating to is the Australian branch of the Red Cross. The Red Cross has played an integral role in handling the natural disaster. Recently, the organization created a registry of victims of the fires so family members can find their loved ones. 

“The Red Cross Australian Branch are doing a variety of things including assisting with government employees, people from the military, maritime evacuations, as well as providing health aid to those impacted by the fires as well the rural fire service,” Harris said.

The final organization they are donating to is the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, the volunteer-based organization that is primarily responsible for extinguishing fires in the region. The nearly 70,000 volunteer fire-fighters and support volunteers have been on the frontlines of this natural disaster, fighting bushfires across the region since June, when the bushfire season first started. 

“What they are doing is helping to extinguish the fires but also help with evacuation and, in future, they are going to start helping with repair, renovation of wildlife and specifically people’s homes,” Cooper said.

While bushfires are a common occurrence in Australia, the intensity of this bushfire season and its devastation is unprecedented. According to Harris, the scientific consensus is that the longer summers associated with climate change have resulted in longer dry seasons, which make the Australian bush floor more susceptible to fires. 

“The people we’ve seen displaced by this bushfire season are some of the world’s first and potentially most noticed climate change refugees,” Harris said.

The dramatic nature of the fires has fueled anger against the Australian government. The government has officially denied the role of human emissions in climate change. According to Geoscience Australia, the nation is currently the largest net exporter of coal in the world and the fourth largest producer. 

“[Prime Minister Scott Morrison] actively discounts climate change and that is part of the reason it sparked such national attention and protest,” Harris said.

Morrison was embroiled in controversy after reports emerged that he had taken a vacation to Hawaii while New South Wales continued to burn. On January 10th, climate protests were held in several major Australian cities, prompting thousands of climate change activists to rally against the government’s handling of the crisis.

“It has led to mass frustration with the government,” Harris added.

Meanwhile, the focus is turning towards mitigating the effects of bushfires in the future. According to Cooper, backburning, in which controlled fires burn bush vegetation that could fuel uncontrollable bushfires, is an effective fire-fighting technique used in Australia to reduce the risk of bushfires.

“One of the best methods that they do use is back burning where they go out and control burn all the trees in hopes that during the bushfire season those areas won’t burn,” Cooper said. 

Harris believes that the most effective solutions to decreasing the risk of bushfires is climate change policy and a greater relationship between the Australian government and indigenous communities. 

“I personally think we should be engaging more with the native and indigenous communities who have been conducting back burning and systematic depletion of low-lying bush grass which is what causes the rapid spread of the fires,” Harris said. 

The bushfires in Australia have continued raging more than half a year since they began. According to Harris, action is needed now more than ever as the danger posed by the bushfires will continue to grow. 

“We’ve reached a non-reversible point with the bushfires in Australia,” Harris said.

By Nicolas Greamo

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