The dawn of the new decade has been dominated by images of Australia in flames. The devastating bushfires (wildfires) have already claimed 23 lives and destroyed nearly 2,000 homes. Half a billion animals are believed to have perished—including an estimated 30 percent of koalas in New South Wales (NSW)—as the fires have scorched an area larger than the 2019 Amazon and California fires combined.
Approximately 150 fires are still burning across Victoria and NSW, the country’s most populated areas, with authorities predicting that it could take months to bring the crisis under control. So should travelers stay away? Here’s everything you need to know.
What to do if you’ve planned a trip to Australia
The good news for travelers, according to a statement released by Tourism Australia on January 3, is that many areas of Australia are unaffected, and most tourism businesses are still open. Travelers can monitor conditions via the official fire service websites and Twitter feeds for each state and territory. Updated frequently, these resources identify where fires are currently burning, and what level of action people should take in those areas.
Developed by the NSW Rural Fire Service, the Fires Near Me app (available for iOS and Android) tracks fires around the country, and identifies areas that have been burned this season. These areas aren’t necessarily off-limits, but tourists are urged to seek the most up-to-date information prior to departure, and remain informed about changing conditions while on the ground.
Fires have not ravaged major cities, but smoke has caused the air quality to decline in Canberra, Melbourne, and Sydney in particular. Concerned travelers can monitor real-time updates on global website Aqicn.org. And with P2 and N95 respirator masks in high demand, consider bringing your own.
When should you plan a trip in the future?
With NSW and Victoria currently in states of emergency, would-be visitors may be wise to hold off on booking a trip to at-risk and affected regions until local authorities give the all-clear. But don’t be too quick to strike Australia off your bucket list. With operators predicting the bushfire season to cost the tourism industry hundreds of millions of dollars, arguably the best thing travelers can do to help it recover is visit.
Which attractions have been affected?
The NSW south coast and the East Gippsland area of northeast Victoria, both popular for their beach towns and wineries, have been the worst hit. Drinking water in several towns has been affected; check local council websites for more information.
Around a third of South Australia’s Kangaroo Island has been decimated by fires. On the island’s west coast, leading Australian eco-hotel Southern Ocean Lodge didn’t survive the inferno.
All national parks including campgrounds on the NSW south coast and Kosciuszko National Park (which lost Selwyn Snow Resort to fires) are closed until further notice. Several parks and campgrounds in Greater Sydney are also closed including Blue Mountains National Park, with Blue Mountains train lines expected to be down for months. Parks Victoria has also closed nine national parks.
Blazes in other states including Queensland, Western Australia, and Tasmania are reportedly under control, with no major tourism destinations—such as Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef and Tasmania’s classic hiking trails—off-limits. Even in NSW and Victoria, it’s business as usual in many areas, such as the northern NSW surf town of Byron Bay and Victoria’s Great Ocean Road.
What caused the fires?
While most climate scientists are reluctant to attribute climate change impacts to a specific weather event, all agree climate change exacerbates the conditions in which bushfires occur. A combination of a record-breaking drought; Australia’s hottest year on record; dry, windy weather; and plenty of fuel on the ground created the perfect conditions for Australia’s summer of hell.
In the wake of the crisis, Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison has received international criticism for downplaying the role of global warming, opposing measures to combat climate change (Australia is one of the world’s highest per-capita carbon emitters), and rejecting additional funding for firefighters.
How can you help?
Dozens of disaster appeals have been launched to support firefighters as well as people and wildlife affected by Australia’s bushfire crisis. Initially designed to support the NSW Rural Fire Service, Australian celebrity comedian Celeste Barber’s Facebook fundraiser has been so successful (raising $28 million U.S. dollars and counting) that the funds will now be distributed to fire services in all states. You can also donate directly to state fire services.
To help people affected, the Australian Red Cross has called for donations to assist in providing thousands of Australians with emergency assistance. The Victorian Government has also partnered with Bendigo Bank and the Salvation Army to establish the Victorian Bushfire Appeal, with a hundred percent of donated funds going directly to communities in need. Multiple fundraisers have also been launched via GoFundMe.
In addition, the NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service (WIRES), World Wildlife Fund Australia, and the RSPCA have all launched appeals to help care for fire-affected wildlife. Donations the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital collects are being shared with other wildlife organizations.
Sarah Reid is an Australian freelance writer who is always up for a sustainable travel adventure. Follow her on Instagram.