Bushfires Down Under

Until the 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season, the forests in Australia were thought to reabsorb all the carbon released in bushfires across the country. It would have meant that the forests achieved net-zero emissions. However, the 2019–2020 bushfires have already emitted 400 megatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Over 18 million hectares have burned in the Australian bushfire season 2019–2020. In addition to human fatalities, many millions of animals have been killed.

With the physical impacts so large, the economic impact is bound to be extensive. The Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 serve as a basis and provide a vague idea about the effect of the 2019-20 bushfires. The 2009 fires occurred in the state of Victoria where they burned 450,000 hectares and cost an approximate 4.4 billion dollars whereas the 2019-20 bushfires have already scorched 18 million hectares. The direct impact of the bushfires is being observed in the destruction of immovable property, agriculture and tourism. Worker productivity has decreased, crop yields are under duress, and health spending has increased.

In a January 8 report, Capital Economics estimated the bushfires could curb first-quarter gross domestic product by around 1 per cent, due to their impact on agricultural output, construction activity, and tourism. For example, Tumut’s pine plantations are expected to take 20 years to regrow, while the apple orchards could take five years. Canberra hotels have reported bookings dropping by around 15 per cent this month due to the bushfires. The city had recorded the world’s worst air quality level, i.e., 7700 on New Year’s Eve (40 times worse than accepted standards of 200)

Even though bushfires are frequent in Australia, the 2019-20 bushfires are the worst Australia has ever faced and are going to cost the most too. In fact, before these fires, the Federal Government had guaranteed a budget surplus of A$5 billion, which is now at risk. On January 6, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced A$2 billion in funding for the newly established National Bushfire Recovery Agency.

The bushfires have also led to a decrease in consumer confidence. The ANZ-Roy Morgan Australian Consumer Confidence survey for the first weekend of January fell to its lowest level in more than four years. A Moody’s economist, Katrina Ell said the fires would further cripple Australia’s already fragile consumer confidence, causing damage to the economy through direct harm to industries such as farming and tourism.

Shaun Lindhe, a spokesperson for industry body AusVeg, says that damage from the fires has already had an impact on vegetable growers. This is due to the direct damage to crops, as well as the unavailability of high volume routes to transfer fresh produce. The fires have also affected the availability of power due to which cold storage facilities have become redundant. Livestock, too, has been affected partially as only 9% of Australia’s livestock live in bush fire affected regions. The National Bushfire Recovery Agency is expected to focus on rebuilding farms hit by the bushfires as a priority, and the Federal Government is also providing $75,000 rebuilding grants. Each state government will also administer a further $100m recovery fund. Tourism has taken a significant hit and will probably need a substantial investment to prop it back to its peak. The Government is also tipping $76 million into Australia’s ailing tourism sector for promotion and events. 

In terms of insurance, the claims have skyrocketed through the roof. The Insurance Council of Australia says about 4,300 claims worth A$297 million ($208 million) have been lodged. The rating agency S&P said the claims were likely to crimp the profitability of insurers and lead to rises in premiums. The economic loss to Australia has been estimated at A$50 million per day. Moody’s Analytics has claimed that the economic damage from the bushfires devastating Australia’s eastern seaboard is likely to exceed the record $4.4bn set by 2009’s Black Saturday blazes.

However, it’s heartwarming to see how people from all walks of life have chipped in to fight against this terrible disaster. In the ongoing Australian Open, the big stars held an exhibition match to raise money for the bushfires. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Serena Williams were some of the stars present at the event. Australian native Nick Kyrgios promised A$200 for every ace he served at the Australian Open. Quad singles crown, Dylan Alcott, in a beautiful gesture thanked Australian Open and pledged A$100 for every ace but with sponsors ended up raising A$40,000 for his 41 serves. This was part of the greater effort by Tennis Australia, #Aces4BushfireAustralia. It’s not just tennis which has chipped in. Nine Australian NBA players have pledged upwards of $750,000 towards bushfire relief. Some of the stars of the Big Bash League, namely Chris Lynn and Glenn Maxwell have pledged A$250 every six they hit during the tournament. Cricket Australia is holding an exhibition match starring all the greats of the game, including Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar as a non-playing coach. This is a momentous effort by Cricket Australia called the Big Appeal, where the money raised from 3 matches on February 8 will be donated to bushfire relief funds. Australian native Chris Hemsworth has donated a million dollars with Sir Elton John matching that amount. Nicole Kidman and her husband, Keith Urban, have donated $500,000 and were visibly upset due to their home being endangered. Pink and Metallica, too, have donated a similar amount. Celebrities like Selena Gomez and Kim Kardashian have rallied for climate change and donations. Leonardo DiCaprio has pledged 3 million dollars to his organization, the Australian Wildfire fund. Amazon founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos has donated AUS$ 1 million to the cause as well.

The majority of the donations have been directed towards NSW Rural Fire Service, Australian Red Cross, and WIRES. New South Wales and Victoria have volunteer firefighters, i.e., they depend on prolonged donations to keep fighting with the equipment they can acquire. The Australian Red Cross has helped more than 18,600 people affected by the fires and is currently taking care of thousands of people in evacuation centers and recovery hubs.

Nearly 500 million animals — including mammals, birds, and reptiles — have died in bushfires in New South Wales. The New South Wales-based Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service Inc., Australia’s largest wildlife rescue organization is rescuing and taking care of animals affected by the fires. In December itself, WIRES received more than 20,000 calls with volunteers attending 3,300 of the rescues. Koalas have been one of the most vulnerable groups during the bushfires which have been injured and scorched. The Koala Hospital in New South Wales and similar hospitals in Victoria have been rescuing, treating and releasing injured koalas back into the wild. WWF Australia has appealed for donations so that it can plant 10,000 trees in critical Koala areas.

The economic cost is already too high, but most importantly, mental health has taken a significant hit. The panic and urgency of having to take shelter on beaches, staying in a crowded place without ways out due to blocked infrastructure, are horrifying in itself. The trauma of emergency evacuations, losing pets and livelihoods is too deep to be ever fulfilled by monetary reparations. The current administration has been criticized vehemently on its stand regarding climate change. Australia is under severe international pressure to bring about a change in its policies after the current horrific fires. The Australian Government needs to take steps fast before another climatic disaster takes away more than they can replace.

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