Australia’s Bushfires

Australia Bushfire Myth Busting

In today’s bustling age of social media, information about big events such as the Australian bushfires can be shared- and skewed- very quickly. Below are some questions posed by stories that really gained traction in the recent week. At the end of the article, you can find out how you can help the Virginia Zoo help our friends in Australia.

Are these bushfires unnatural?

Yes and no. Australia’s wildfires are part of a natural cycle. Historically, bushfires in Australia occur in grass, scrub, and brush areas of the country during its hot, dry summer season. These fires break down dry, dead plant matter and help return nutrients to the soil. Some plants cannot reproduce without fires, as their seeds require extreme heat to germinate. Fire seasons generally last a few months, and wildlife in the affected areas have adapted by learning when to escape or burrow for protection. However, fire seasons in most areas of the world have been growing longer and more intense, and animals are unable to adapt as quickly.

What is causing the fires? Climate change? Arson?

Australia’s wildfires have been exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, just like extreme weather events around the world (think fires in California, hurricanes along East Coast, polar vortexes in Midwest and Northeast). Due to increasing CO2 in our atmosphere, Earth’s natural system of radiation has been disrupted. Increased CO2 creates a “heat-trapping blanket” which traps heat energy from the sun and Earth and holds it in our atmosphere.  A warming global atmosphere disrupts regular climate and weather patterns all over the Earth. In Australia, it has led to hotter and drier weather in many parts of the country. 2019 was Australia’s hottest year on record, as well as it’s driest.  With less rain, and higher temperatures, last year marks another in a series of years where the normal bushfire season started earlier and lasted longer.

Each year, people are arrested for being irresponsible with fire (whether purposely or accidentally) during dry seasons; over 20 people were arrested during the 2019 fire season, but they are not the main cause for ignition of the wildfires. Lightning from dry thunderstorms is the primary source, even during historically more normal fire seasons. Dry thunderstorms form in areas so hot and dry that precipitation evaporates before reaching the lower levels of the atmosphere. Wind from these storms also causes fire to spread rapidly.

I’ve seen a map of Australia superimposed over the United States, and it looks like huge amounts of the country is burning; how widespread are the fires?

Reports indicated that anywhere from 12-18 million acres of land have been burned by the fires. This is a little over half of the state of Virginia, for comparison. Many of the maps shared online misrepresent the size of the fires, show fires over a period of time, or they are flat-out fabricated.

Have the fires killed over a billion animals?

No. According to ecologists at the University of Sydney, nearly a billion animals throughout all of Australia have been impacted by the fires in the past few months. Impacted can mean many things such as being displaced, losing a food or water source, being injured, or dying. It is important to remember that these fires do happen every year and animals are always affected in some way.

Are koalas “functionally extinct?”

No. There are two definitions for a species being “functionally extinct:”

  1. A species still exists but can’t effectively reproduce, simply because of low numbers or because of inbreeding. This is the case for the northern white rhino; only two older females remain of this subspecies and therefore cannot reproduce by traditional methods.
  2. A species’ total population is so reduced that it can no longer play its role in the ecosystem. This is harder to observe due to the complexities of ecosystems.

While koala populations are in decline across Australia and the bushfires certainly aren’t helping, there is no evidence that either definition of “functionally extinct” applies here. Certain local populations of koalas are at most risk than others due to the fires, but the species as a whole remains listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List.

Are wombats offering shelter to other animals in their burrows?

Not really. These stout and very cute ground-dwelling marsupials (an animal that raises its young in a pouch) are great underground architects. Their burrows are extensive, with a system of chambers and tunnels. Some species of wombat are solitary, but others will share their burrows with other wombats. However, none of the wombat species readily share their burrows with other types of animals and will usually chase them out. That being said, when burrows are abandoned, they become prime real estate for many other species including rabbits, wallabies, and even birds. Scientists believe that wombats may be, at best, tolerating the influx of house guests during the fires, but animals may also just be utilizing empty burrows.

Did the government drop more than two tons of food for wallabies?

Yes! Brush-tailed rock-wallabies are adept at escaping from wildfires. However, since much of their habitat is burnt and takes time to regrow, it can be difficult for them to find food for some time. New South Wales government officials have airdropped more than two tons of carrots and sweet potatoes into areas inhabited by the endangered wallaby species. Drops like this have happened in the past, but this is their biggest effort to date.

How can I make sure the news story I want to share is truthful?

It is important to remember that conditions in Australia are still changing and new information can come to light every day. Cross-check social media graphics with actual news or scientific sources before sharing is the best way to stomp out misinformation. Make sure the reference sources are to scientific organizations such as universities, Australian government agencies, or environmental non-profits.

How can I help?

Australians are still actively fighting fires and rescuing animals, and are only in the beginning stages of recovery. The Virginia Zoo is taking donation for the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund, which can be collected on grounds or by texting “WALLABY” TO 436-05. Remember to research any organization asking for money before donating.

The Virginia Zoo is hosting Act for Australia Day on Sunday, January 26th. The Australia Walkabout exhibit will be open from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. Please join us for interactive educational activities, a special keeper chat, and animal enrichment. These activities are all free with regular zoo admission.

We will have a limited number of art pieces also available to purchase. Decorated ostrich eggs will be available for a donation of $50 or more and are first come, first serve. We will also have a Zoodoption Special and donation boxes that will contribute directly to the Bushfire Emergency Wildlife Fund, organized by our zoological colleagues at Zoos Victoria in Australia.

Finally, at 11:30 am we will host a special Australia Behind the Scenes Tour. Spots are limited to 20 guests, so please pre-register here.

Finally, if you are unable to attend our event, you can still contribute by texting WALLABY to 435-06 to make a donation from your phone!

If you have any questions about wildlife stories in the media or how you can help animals in Australia and around the world, be sure to follow Zoos Victoria for updates and feel free to reach out to [email protected] and we will try to point you in the right direction. Thank you for keeping Australia in your heart and helping in whatever way you can!