By Leanne Hamilton
Isabelle Risse ‘20 changed her scenery from seeing squirrels outside her Saint Mike’s dorm room window, to waking up to find wallabies outside in her front yard. Among them were kangaroos off in the distance and a koala in every tree. The single road stretching across the entire island split the open land of grass where Australian wildlife could rehabilitate or just live freely in its protected preserve. However, this is all but a memory for Risse. As she recently Google searched Kangaroo Island, with it heavily on her mind after word of the bushfires setting Australia ablaze, she was sad to see that the website posted “closed indefinitely for now” as it had been decimated by the flames.
Risse traveled abroad to Sydney, Australia her junior year at Saint Michael’s. When word of the fires first spread, it really hit home for her. “When I learned how bad it really was I was honestly destroyed,” recounts Risse. “Being abroad it becomes like a second home to you. It was a pretty hopeless feeling, like there isn’t anything you can do about it.” She reflected further on her memories when visiting Australia, one of her most fondest being Kangaroo Island, “I actually went with my family to Kangaroo Island, which was one of the places that was decimated by the fires, and they have a big proportion of Australia’s wildlife.” Not only was it devastating that the fires had swept through destroying half the island, but that reintroducing animals back on the island after the fires will be no easy task.
“It’s kind of weird, but a lot of the koalas are infected with chlamydia actually, so the ones on Kangaroo Island were the only ones that weren’t infected. Now that most of them have died, if they want to reintroduce them they will have to take the koalas that are already infected” explains Risse. Even the process of reintroducing animals won’t bring Kangaroo Island back to where it was before the fires, much like the rest of Australia. “I saw something that said it’s going to take decades to get back to where they were,” said Risse. “ All the work they did to try and keep that alive is now burned.” Fortunately for Risse, she got to travel to the beautiful country before the fires ignited. Benjamin Kaufman, a transportation guru residing in Australia, says that he is pretty lucky that where he is hasn’t been affected as bad as other areas. “I live in Brisbane, which is a bit more northern. There is no clear air, its really smokey— but not as bad as Sydney” Kaufman explains. “A friend of mine couldn’t train because of the air pollution. He tries to stay inside as much as he can because the smoke pollution in the air is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes.” A healthy ecosystem actually relies on a bit of controlled fire in order to maintain and reproduce. “Something that people don’t understand, is that Australia burns regularly to keep a healthy ecosystem. There is a certain plant, its pine-cone like, that will only open to release seeds when exposed to heat. There is also a predator called the fire hawk. This bird takes burning branches and drops them onto land that isn’t burning to start a fire, so when all the animals scatter they can catch snakes and reptiles” Kaufman tells. While the ecosystem may rely on these small controlled fires, what is currently happening with the bushfires is not by any means normal ecosystem behavior. “While this is normal for the ecosystems, what is happening with these bushfires is massively worse. It’s
not irreparable, but there is serious damage.”
While Australia is burning at a much larger scale, bushfires are no stranger to U.S. soils. During the year of 2019, the state of California faced its own dangers of spreading wildfires, giving a glimpse of the potential event in Australia happening here in the U.S. “California, and the conditions that affect California also affect many of the other Western states. However, California is particularly extreme as a hazard for wildfires because of other aspects of their socio-economic characteristics: a large mostly urban population stacked on steep hillslopes and in canyons in a small strip next to the ocean, the concentration of urban areas, as well as the high value of the properties in California, all make this a high hazard area for wildfires in the U.S.” explains Laura Stroup, professor of environmental science at Saint Michael’s. Stroup, like Kaufman, mentioned that wildfires are often a tool to regulate the ecosystem, so often it knows how to adjust to the conditions it is put under. However, these conditions are growing larger as humans continue to tamper with the environment. “Camp Johnson regularly does controlled burns for scientific study and ecosystem restoration. In the environment, these occur naturally due to lightning strikes. However, the
fires in Australia that we have seen this year, follow long-term drought conditions, are caused by increased warming from human-caused global climate change” states Stroup. “The ecosystem will continue to respond, both in terms of human influence and in terms of the conditions of the overall planet that we have now influenced greatly with our continuous loading of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.” With these conditions growing worse, there is more fuel such as dead trees and growing urban areas to increase the chances of wildfires occurring.
The U.S. is lucky in terms that when wildfires do occur, such as in California, there is government funding that goes out to control the situation. “We have funding Aussie doesnt” yay Ben. So then with this funding and no wildfires to this extreme within the U.S., why should anyone be concerned? For Isabelle Risse ‘20, it wasn’t just from a personal connection to the country, but a moral concern. “People and animals are dying” says Risse. ‘So many beings are now displaced.” Even if one can look past that fact, belief in climate change or not, the U.S. has contributed to the pollution of the earth. Which according to Professor Stroup in the right conditions this pollution can be the perfect ingredient for wildfires. “What this indicated to me was that under the right conditions, human mis-management and impacts on forests, and considering even relatively cooler latitudes and more humid conditions as a general climate, anywhere with a forest can have a large disaster” infers Stroup. “That means that by continuing to warm the Earth, we are all at risk for more disasters like this just from global climate change, alone, not to mention all the other ways we currently live unsustainably on the Earth.”
Where to Donate:
Victorian Fire Brigade
World Wildlife Foundation Bushfire Relief