Australian fires: Everything we know about the crisis and how you can help

Bushfires have been ravaging the country for months, devastating towns, rural communities and livelihoods. Here are the best ways to help.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
16 min read

Australia is on fire.

Saeed Khan/Getty

Australia is facing an unprecedented national crisis, as bushfires tear through rural communities across the nation. Since September, at least 25 people have died and more than 2,000 homes have been destroyed. The scale of the threat is immense, and fires continue to burn, with authorities calling for people to evacuate their homes. Eerily, the bushfire season has just begun and Australia is bracing for continuous weeks of catastrophic danger. 

Australians caught up in the crisis are taking to social media and pleading for help. Entire towns have been flattened as fires snaked through bushland, across highways and up mountains. In New South Wales and Victoria, the most populous states in the country, people tried to outrun the blaze and highways were clogged with cars. South Australia's Kangaroo Island experienced some of the worst conditions in early January, with a third of the island ablaze. The Army reserves were called in to help the relief effort across the nation, while major cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne, continue to be covered in a dense smoke that has not lifted for months. Some regions of the country recorded air quality measurements 20 times above the hazardous level.

The situation remains dire. Australians are exhausted and frustrated by a lack of clear leadership. With the fire season still in its earliest days and conditions continuing to fluctuate between poor and manageable, help is required. 

Here's what we know about the ongoing fires and how you can help from Australia or afar. 

If you'd just like to find out where to donate or how you can help, you can skip to the end of the page by clicking here

What caused the fires?

This is a complex question. Australia is a continent familiar with bushfires, bushfire management and the importance of fires in regenerating the land. The indigenous people who have lived across the island continent for tens of thousands of years have long known the importance of fire management and how it contributes to the health of ecosystems. Bushfires are a well-understood threat, but the fires now burning across the nation have been described as "unprecedented" in their ferocity and scale.

Fires can start in a number of ways -- from carelessly discarded cigarettes to lightning strikes and arson -- but they're fueled by a dizzying amount of factors. A lack of rain and low soil moisture can help enable small fires to grow in size, and coupled with the high temperatures and fierce winds that Australia has experienced in the last few months, these small fires can become huge infernos. In addition, with the fire season getting longer, the window to perform critical hazard reduction burns has decreased, giving fires a chance to really take hold. 

The bushfire risk for the 2019 season was well known to Australian firefighting chiefs, who had been trying to meet with Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, since April, worried that a crisis was coming, but they were constantly rebuffed. 

What is the connection to climate change?

A greenhouse gas cannot start a fire on its own. Bushfires aren't started by climate change, but they are exacerbated by the effects of global warming. The Climate Council, an independent, community-funded climate organization, suggests bushfire conditions are now more dangerous than they were in the past, with longer bushfire seasons, drought, drier fuels and soils and record-breaking heat. The link between bushfires and climate change has become a political football, but experts agree climate change explains the unprecedented nature of the current crisis. 

Notably, Australia experienced its hottest year on record in 2019, climbing 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than the average, according to a report by the Bureau of Meteorology. Rising temperatures increase the risk of bushfire, and in November, Sydney experienced a catastrophic fire danger for the first time ever. 

There is also a horrifying feedback loop that occurs when great swaths of land are ablaze, a fact the globe grappled with during the Amazon fires of 2019. Bushfires release carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The gas, which makes up only a small percentage of the total gases in the atmosphere, is exceptionally good at trapping heat. In just three months, Australia's fires are estimated to have released 350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Experts warn a century or more will be needed to absorb the carbon dioxide released

Watch this: On the ground and in the cloud, the fight to save the Amazon

What areas are affected?

Fires are raging in every state, with some of the greatest conflagrations in NSW and Victoria. The Gospers Mountains fires, in NSW, have burned over half a million hectares, and scientists suggest it could be the largest single-ignition point fire in Australia's history. The total area that's been burned is rapidly approaching 8 million hectares (almost 20 million acres). That's almost ten times the amount of burnt area the Amazon experienced in 2019 and about three times the amount burnt in California's 2018 wildfires.

The Japanese weather satellite, Himawari, captured some stunning images from space of the smoke plumes developing off the south-east coast of Australia. You can see the formation of huge pyrocumulus clouds, a type of smoke cloud often seen during bushfires that can generate its own problematic weather -- including lightning storms. 

The Guardian Australia has an excellent interactive map you can use to understand the extreme size of the fires, and the entire fire front, compared to other cities around the globe. 

The dust and ash from the fires have spread across the ocean and as far as New Zealand's Franz Josef Glacier. On Jan. 1, images emerged of Franz Josef's snowy mountaintops colored a caramel brown. The distance between the glacier and the bushfire front is about the same as the distance from Boston to Miami. 

Who is fighting the fires?

The majority of these fires are burning in regional and rural areas where volunteer firefighting services are the chief firefighting organizations. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service has around 70,000 members, but most of them are performing unpaid work to protect the lives and homes of their compatriots. A report by the BBC suggests approximately 3,000 firefighters are on the ground every day battling blazes.

American and Canadian firefighters and fire experts have been flown in over the past month to help control the blazes. Over 100 US firefighters have been flown in, with more flying out on Jan. 6.

On Jan. 4, Morrison announced the Australian government would be sending in military support including the country's largest warship, HMAS Adelaide, to help evacuate regional communities on Victoria's coast. Additionally, 3,000 army reservists were asked to assist in fire recovery efforts. Four extra water-bombers have been leased to provide additional air support.

When will they end?

Another complex question. Predictions suggest they will stretch well into 2020. After all, Australia is only one month through summer and dry, hot conditions persist through March and April. Much-needed rain, which would help alleviate some of the uncontrolled blazes, is still forecast to be months away.

Are koalas at risk of extinction?

An erroneous report in November 2019 stated that the koala, an Australian icon, was "functionally extinct" due to the bushfires burning across NSW and Queensland. Experts do not believe this to be true, but the species -- and many other native Australian fauna -- are under threat as a direct result of the uncontrolled blazes.

An ecologist at the University of Sydney estimates that up to 480 million animals may have perished or will die in the conflagrations, including up to 8,000 koalas, based on a methodology used to estimate how many animals live within the fire zone. Sussan Ley, Australia's environment minister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the true extent of deaths can't be fully grasped until the fires have stopped burning and "a proper assessment can be made." 

As the fires slither across the nation, it's not only the koala that is in strife -- much of Australia's native wildlife is being displaced. Zoos Victoria has provided a handy guide on how to help. 

The crisis in real time

Social media is awash with harrowing images from the fire front, showing communities huddling by the beach as orange, dusty skies obscure the horizon. The Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House have disappeared beneath a gray haze multiple times in the last two months.

On Dec. 31, a crew from NSW Fire and Rescue station 509 were caught inside their fire truck, south of the township of Nowra, as a fire front descended on the vehicle. Footage from the incident rapidly spread across the web.

Some of the most widely circulated images came out of Mallacoota, a small town in eastern Victoria which regularly sees a huge amount of tourists over the Christmas holidays. On Dec. 31, around 4,000 people were forced down to the lake to avoid bushfires. 

Mallacoota residents and tourists were evacuated by two naval vessels on Jan. 3.

Incredible footage of a magpie which has started to mimic the sound of a fire truck emerged on Jan. 2. 

In New York Magazine's Intelligencer, climate reporter David Wallace-Wells writes that there's been "global apathy" in responding to the bushfire crisis. The New York Times showed clogged highways and roads, cars bumper to bumper, trying to flee the carnage. The Guardian spoke with residents talking in apocalyptic terms, calling the situation they'd found themselves in "Armageddon." Prominent Australian reporter and broadcaster Hugh Riminton called Australia "a burning nation led by cowards."

On Jan. 3 a fire took hold on Kangaroo Island, an important ecological safe haven off the coast of South Australia. Rains helped ease the burden overnight and the state's fire service downgraded the emergency threat level early on Jan. 4, after a quarter of the island was ravaged by the "unstoppable" fire. It is still burning out of control. 

On Saturday Jan. 4, two deaths were confirmed as a result of the Kangaroo Island fires, bringing the death toll to 23. 

Saturday also brought weather conditions that were expected to, and did, "deteriorate quickly." The combination of high temperatures, reaching around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), low humidity and winds creates a dangerous mix of conditions allowing fire to take hold and spread quickly. 

Conditions eased on Jan. 5 and as cool air moved through the country, a handful of blazes were downgraded from emergency level to watch and act. There are a number of emergency warnings still in place in both NSW and Victoria. 

An absolutely incredible video from Merimbula, a town about 450 kilometers (280 miles) east of Melbourne. 

Australian actor Russell Crowe picked up a Golden Globe on Jan. 6 but was not at the ceremony in California because he was protecting his family and home back in Australia. His winning speech was read out by Jennifer Aniston. 

"Make no mistake," the statement began, "the tragedy unfolding in Australia is climate change based. We need to act based on science, move our global workforce to renewable energy and respect our planet for the unique and amazing place it is. That way, we all have a future. Thank you."

As of Tuesday, Jan. 7, all fires in NSW have been downgraded to advice level, while Victoria has 13 fires burning at "watch and act" levels. Mild rain has given firefighters some reprieve but there is some concern that Jan. 9 and Jan. 10 could bring worse conditions once again. 

In South Australia, where fires burnt through swaths of land on Kangaroo Island, there is a total fire ban for Jan. 7. Fire activity may increase over the course of the day. A report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation explains how wildlife experts are worried about the fate of many of the island's threatened species.

What about the political response?

A real sense of frustration has been building, from the Australian public, toward the governing conservative Liberal party and the prime minister, Scott Morrison. As the bushfire crisis began to crescendo the first time, Morrison was holidaying in Hawaii but amid public backlash, and following the deaths of two volunteer firefighters, cut his trip short by a day.

There have been allegations within the Australian press and across social media that, somehow, the Greens (a center-left party) are somehow to blame for the extent of the fires because they prevented hazard reduction burning. This has been proven to be demonstrably wrong.

On Jan. 2, Morrison visited the town of Cobargo, which has been ravaged by the fires, and was greeted by angry residents refusing to shake his hand and heckling him from across the street. They were angry -- and they wanted to make their voices heard. One resident, seen in footage shot by Australia's 9News, said she would only shake Morrison's hand if he committed to helping the firefighting efforts. "We are totally forgotten about down here," one resident explained.

Twitter's trending section has consistently found itself flooded with hashtags such as #AustraliaBurning, right next to #dismissthisprimeminister and #ScottyFromMarketing -- a reference by the satirical Australian website The Betoota Advocate to the prime minister's previous work in that industry. 

In the US, presidential hopefuls such as Bernie Sanders have been tweeting about the fires, as has singer Bette Midler, who tweeted some choice words for the Australian prime minister to her 1.8 million followers.

On Jan. 4, the Morrison government released a short advertisement to Twitter, an explainer detailing the response to the fires. It was widely ridiculed for its poor-timing and unusual music selection -- an upbeat, up-tempo jingle that clashed with the central message. A satirical version of the video appeared shortly after and, as of writing, has received 190,000 views. 

On Jan. 6, Morrison announced the establishment of the National Bushfire Recovery Fund, which will receive at least $2 billion over the next two years. The fund will support regional communities from farmers to local governments as well as delivering ongoing support for first responders. 

The fund will be administered by the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, which is led by former Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin.

"What we are focusing on here is the human cost and the rebuilding cost for people's lives," Morrison said. "We're focused on the financial cost, we're focused on the human costs and ensuring we can do everything we can, as quickly as we can, to support that recovery effort."

Donations flood in

As widespread media attention began to focus in on the fires, a swatch of celebrities began raising awareness of the bushfire threat on social media. Many began opening up their wallets. Australian actor Chris Hemsworth pledged $1 million, as did Elton John. Pink pledged $500,000, while Kylie Jenner put up $1.5 million shortly after posting a photo of herself in animal fur slippers. Celeste Barber, an Australian comedian, began a fundraiser in January that has already raised $45 million AUD, and another comedian, Magda Szubanski, has used gofundme to raise almost $100,000 for ongoing mental health support

You can find a full list of fundraisers below:

How you can help

A number of organizations and volunteer services are aiding in the firefighting and recovery efforts for affected communities. Unfortunately in times of crisis, sometimes we encounter bad actors. The Guardian provided a useful guide on how you should think about donating and how to avoid scams. Whether you want to help the firefighting organizations, wildlife or just provide somewhere to sleep, you can find a ton of handy links and information below:

Direct to firefighting efforts

Relief and support efforts

US-based charities



Fundraising and auctions

Mental health services

Respiratory equipment and where to buy P2 masks

Other things you can do

Originally posted on Dec. 2 and updated regularly.