8 Jan 2020

Bushfires update: a message from BirdLife Australia

The recent news of devastating wildfires sweeping across Australia has been hard to ignore. Samantha Vine, Head of Conservation for BirdLife Australia, provides an update of the situation so far, and the urgent actions needed to help Australia’s birds and habitats to survive.

Bushfires of unprecedented scale and intensity have raged across Australia since December © bertknot / Flickr
Fires of unprecedented scale and intensity have been raging since December © bertknot / Flickr
By Samantha Vine, BirdLife Australia

Our hearts reach out to people across the world who are grieving with Australians over our devastating bushfires. Some of the stories we’re hearing from across the country are truly heartbreaking; our thoughts and concerns are with those most affected by the fires.

We particularly acknowledge and thank those at the frontline of this fire emergency; from firefighters working long hours in the heat and smoke, to people in the community stepping up to support each other.

While unprecedented, these fires were predicted. In 2008, the Governments of Australia's Federation commissioned a report by Professor Ross Garnaut to examine the impacts of climate change on Australia. The Garnaut report predicted that Australia’s bushfire seasons would progressively lengthen and generally be more intense, and that the impacts would be observable by 2020. The predictions of Garnaut and many other climate scientists have proved right.

As well as the terrible loss of life and property, experts estimate more than 500 million animals have been killed so far. This includes threatened species close to our hearts, such as Regent Honeyeaters, Eastern Bristlebirds and Glossy Black Cockatoos. Many species have lost important breeding and feeding habitat and now face starvation. The scale of the wildlife emergency is unprecedented.

Donate to BirdLife Australia's emergency appeal here

The fires have significantly impacted a broad range of ecosystems, from the mountains to the coastline. This includes World Heritage-listed tropical and temperate rainforests that aren’t supposed to burn and are perhaps unlikely to recover, through to forests dominated by towering eucalypts, and thriving coastal heathlands. It is inevitable that many of our beautiful birds, from our showy cockatoos to our noisy honeyeaters and little brown birds, will be badly affected.

BirdLife Australia is already planning and coordinating a disaster response. We will be working with our partners to understand the impact on our birds and put emergency recovery plans in place. But it’s a difficult task, the fires are still burning and southern Australia is yet to experience the peak fire season. It will be many weeks before we know the full extent of the crisis.

As soon as it is safe to do so, we’ll be doing assessments of fire affected areas for our threatened species. We will be evaluating impacts on Endangered species such as the Eastern Bristlebird Dasyornis brachypterus, which had at least three key areas of habitat hit by fires in south-east Queensland and northern NSW late last year. We also know fires have impacted important breeding habitat for the Regent Honeyeater Anthochaera phrygia (Critically Endangered), of which there are likely to be fewer than 250 birds in the wild.

Key habitats for the Regent Honeyeater (Critically Endangered) have been hit by fires © Valentin / Flickr

These are just two of hundreds of bird species from across the country likely to have been affected by these catastrophic fires, a disaster that comes on top of the extinction crisis already rapidly unfolding in Australia. Some of the fire-affected species are down to a couple of hundred birds in a few small populations, the loss of which will make preventing species’ extinctions even more difficult. The known habitat of some other species is likely to have been totally wiped out, as over six million hectares of bushland has been burned, so far.

Australia is a world leader in managing and responding to the risk of bushfires. Over many years our governments have taken strategic action to reduce risk to life, property and ecosystems and invested in the capacity to suppress fires. But this work has done little to slow these flames, and our suppression capacity is no match for the intensity and scale of these fires. They are truly unprecedented in size and ferocity.

Although we can review our bushfire prevention strategies and invest more time and money in their implementation, although we can work on species and ecosystem recovery and triage the birds and animals most at threat of extinction, we know that these are stopgaps. The fires are a consequence of global inaction to reduce carbon emissions. The time has come to stand together in the face of these terrible flames and act against the ravages of climate change. It is our only real solution. 


Your donation can help BirdLife Australia to combat this crisis through habitat refuges, fire management and a Fire Emergency Team. Support their vital work here.