The wombat, an Australian mammal whose burrows have provided space for smaller animals to escape the fire. courtesy JJ Harrison, Wikimedia Common

Australian wildfires devastate wildlife, unclear if new rain will help

The fires in Australia have burnt the equivalent area of South Korea or Portland, according to The Guardian.

Sparking outrage and ecological concerns, the ongoing Australian wildfires are part of the country’s worst fire seasons on record. As of this week, the Australian Broadcasting Company reports the damage has so far totaled to 24 million acres, an amount larger than Portugal and more than 12 times the area burned in the 2018 California fires.

Currently, the damage of buildings totals over 2,000 in the state of New South Wales alone and is expected to increase, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS).

The fires have also resulted in the death of at least 28 people and impacts the health of those exposed to the carbon monoxide. According to the BBC, recent readings of the air quality find it equivalent to smoking 37 cigarettes a day.

For wildlife, the destruction is larger; the damage to wildlife is disastrous with an estimated more than one billion animals lost. Scientists fear the damage to ecosystems, and with good reason: Australia holds some of the grandest biodiversity in the world, as the continent was isolated for millions of years. The diversity was previously threatened by human interaction and invasive species, but the ecological damage, according to Australia’s science research agency, CSIRO, is severe. However, the precise impact of the fires is hard to estimate because many animals that do survive will have other issues: diminishing natural food supplies, threats from predators, lack of shelter and corrupted water supplies.

Meanwhile, Kangaroo Island, a sanctuary for Australian wildlife, houses endangered species and distinct flora and fauna, surviving because the island’s habitats have remained pristine. Now, one-third of the island suffers from fires. Science News estimates “over half of the koala population on the island has been lost.”
In an interview with Vox, ecologist from the Australian National University Sarah Legge said, “some of the [species] will be brought to the brink of extinction as a result of this event. And if they’re not made extinct . . . I think this is the beginning of the end for them.”

And, while the crisis continues, there have been some reprieves.

Amid the devastation, Operation Rock-Wallaby provides help to NSW’s key rock-wallaby colonies by dropping “over 4,000 pounds of vegetables” via helicopter, according to Matt Kean, NSW’s minister for energy and environment. Kean believes providing supplementary food will promote the survival of wallabies stranded with limited natural food.

Another environmental win was the saving of an intentionally hidden grove of prehistoric trees, which date to the time of dinosaurs. Less than 200 of the Wollemi pines remain, and both the NSW RFS and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service worked together to carry out “an unprecedented environmental protection mission,” Kean confirmed.

Over the weekend, severe thunderstorms have brought much-needed powerful rain to the firefighters battling the wildfires. The amount of rain varied wildly, ranging from drops to four inches, but dozens of fires persist. If it continues, the NSW RFS believes the rainstorms will be the solution to the region’s fires.

The NSW RFS tweeted, “Our fingers are crossed that this continues over the coming days.”

And while rain has helped dim some fires, it came with its own risks. The storms have brought severe weather warnings and could result in the formation of landslides in newly burned areas. According to CNN, years of drought have “left some regions so dry that rain just runs off the ground” and fires may have destroyed the vegetation that would usually absorb the water. The Victoria State Emergency Service reported a sinkhole 13 feet deep, Queensland experienced flash flooding and stranded citizens and scientists fear that the rain could harm animals that survived the bushfires.

Despite these setbacks, NSW RFS remains hopeful. Ray White, a group captain for a volunteer firefighter brigade, told the New York Times, “[The rain]’s not going to help the drought much. It’s just a start.”

Post Author: Anna Johns