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.
Indigenous Australians were adept at very slow, controlled burns that helped control wildfires. Non-natives have not been as adept. When increased land clearing and urban sprawl are added, and climate change layered on top, the result has been a series of extremely severe fires that have charred more than 34,000 square miles as of early January 2020, according to NBC News.
Just for comparison, that’s an area about the size of Indiana – an area 5,000 square miles more than the area burned in 2019’s Amazon rainforest fires, and 80 times larger than the area burned in the 2019 California wildfires.
Here are all the areas that have had bushfires in the Australian summer of 2019-2020:
Where the fires are
Fires have hit every Australian state. A map of the fire zones show they virtually ring 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.
Victoria declared a state of disaster January 2 for the eastern part of the state and issued evacuation orders for some locales.
New South Wales created a tourist leave zone on its southern coast on January 4, stretching from south of Sydney to the Victoria border. Tourists had to evacuate the area, with no return date set.
While popular nature locations like Kangaroo Island were hard-hit, Tourism Australia noted that most of the area’s most popular tourist destinations remained open through the worst of the fires.
(Photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash)
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.
However, that part of the crisis has abated, and air quality in Australia’s major cities is largely back to normal.
In all, while the fires made January an incredibly difficult month for the country, February and March saw fewer fires, and there are even signs of an early recovery in some of Australia's forests.
(Photo by Alex King on Unsplash)
Should travelers visit Australia right now?
Large parts of the country are in fire-fighting and/or recovery mode – but Australia is a huge country, and the vast majority of the country (the interior, in particular) has not been affected by the fires.
That’s the glass-half-full approach. The glass-half-empty argument is that the places that have been affected are many of the places with greatest tourist appeal.
Tourism Australia, the country’s tourism authority, acknowledges the country’s difficulties from a travel-and-tourism standpoint.
“Our incredible tourism businesses and operators in fire-affected regions are doing it tough right now, and it is vital we encourage Australians and international tourists to visit these communities so they can thrive again,” TA Managing Director Philippa Harrison said in a statement.
In a different statement, Harrison had specific recommendations for travelers looking at coming to Australia:
- Seek the most up-to-date information prior to departure and try to stay informed about changing conditions while on the ground.
- Get the latest fire warnings from the Australian Government’s meteorology bureau at bom.gov.au.
- For specific destinations, get updates from the local Rural Fire Service, national park or relevant state or territory emergency agencies.
- Speak with staff at local visitor-information centers for advice about local conditions.
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've been 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."
(Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash)