About the fires
Australia has brush fires every year. Like California, Australia has a rainier season where underbrush can grow quickly. Also like California, Australia has a drier season where the underbrush dies and dries, making it perfect fire-starting material.
Dry weather and poorly controlled burns led to a series of extremely severe fires that were 50 times bigger than California’s largest recorded wildfire, charring more than 37,500 square miles across southern and eastern Australia. That’s an area bigger than Portugal!
Where the fires struck
Fires hit every Australian state. They virtually ringed the country, except for a small area in the country’s northwest.
Hardest-hit areas included the states of New South Wales and Victoria – home to Sydney and Melbourne, respectively.
The fires had severe collateral impacts as well. Air quality was a major concern in Australia’s largest cities – Melbourne, Sydney, and the capital, Canberra.
In addition, habitat was destroyed that provided food and shelter for many of the country’s unique plant and animal species.
Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash
Impacts on Australia’s unique biodiversity
While Australian cities show no effects from the wildfires, things are different out in the bush.
Australia is a country that is used to fire; its flora and fauna are resilient, and some rely on fire for their seeds to germinate. However, fires of this magnitude are not something that can be overcome in a matter of months.
New growth is filling in many of the burned-over areas. However, there are deeper sorts of long-lasting damages that the new growth covered up.
For example, WIRED reported that 70 of the 832 species of native vertebrate animals that live in the affected territory had more than 30 percent of their habitat burned, and 21 of these were already listed by the Australian government as threatened with extinction.
“These include iconic Australian species like koalas, kangaroos, and wallabies,” WIRED noted, “and lesser-known species like the Kangaroo Island dunnart, a mouse-like marsupial that was already listed as endangered, then lost over 80 percent of its habitat to the bushfires. And these are just the vertebrates – untold numbers of invertebrates burned too.”
Travelers to Australia who are taking a hit-the-highlights sort of trip may not notice much has changed in the country. However, people who have visited the country’s forests before may notice significantly less wildlife when they return.
Because of that, people who are planning a wildlife or backcountry vacation to Australia may want to delay their trip until the bush has time to recover. For anyone else, the best time to visit Australia is as soon as the pandemic-related travel restrictions are lifted.
Photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash
An Australian's Perspective
Anthony Bianco, a travel blogger at The Travel Tart who lives in Brisbane, gave this advice to travelers thinking of visiting Australia:
“Like everyone else, I [was] horrified at the impacts the bushfires have had on Australia. It’s hard to not be affected by the graphic images. And the worst thing is that many people have paid the ultimate price, including United States citizens who were out here trying to put these fires out (Australians are very grateful for this help – and we’re never going to forget this).
“But, let’s put everything into perspective.
“The areas that have been affected by bushfires are away from Australia’s major tourist attractions. It’s unlikely that visitors will experience any issues, unless you’re planning a road trip through one of these places – which is unlikely, as the worst affected places in New South Wales and Victoria are geared more towards domestic tourism.
“Yes, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane did experience some very poor air quality days, but these impacts have now largely stopped.
“Remember that Australia is a big place – it’s a similar size to the United States or Europe. Australia is definitely open for business and the most popular places that tourists visit – the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, the capital cities and the vast majority of the rest of the country – are all safe to visit.”
American tourists traveling to Australia
They may be safe, but they’re also out of reach, because currently American tourists can’t travel to Australia. The country has closed its borders to most internationals, though it is allowing some limited regional travel for residents of New Zealand.
The State Department has given the country a safety rating of 2, or “exercise increased caution,” but only because of COVID. However, at this point a safety rating is purely academic, meant for comparison purposes only.
The country and region have done an exceptional job controlling the virus’s spread and are wary about opening up too much too quickly, meaning Australia may be one of the last countries in the world to open up to American travelers.
However, when the country reopens to Americans, the State Department's recommendations are roughly the same as they are for visiting any country:
- Visit travel.state.gov for travel warnings, travel alerts, and country information
- Know the locations and phone numbers of the U.S. embassy and consulates in Australia
- U.S. State Department – Consular Affairs: 1-888-407-4747 or 202-501-4444
- Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive travel and security updates
- Follow the State Department on Facebook and Twitter
The State Department recommendations are standard stuff, and there’s every expectation that Australia will be given the State Department’s highest safety rating when it reopens to American travelers. Nothing on the safety side should stop you from planning your Australian vacation.
Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash