International / News / January 15, 2020

Australian students reflect on bushfire crisis

Smoke obscures the Sydney Harbour Bridge. (Photo courtesy of Harry Phillips).

For the last few months, Australians at Knox have found themselves having to keep up with a growing crisis in their homeland while studying on the other side of the globe.

Since September, the country has been dealing with an unprecedented bushfire season, which the New York Times reports has destroyed at least 2,000 homes and burned millions of acres of land.

Freshman Harry Phillips is from metropolitan Sydney, which he returned to for part of the break. While the fires have not had a large personal impact on him, the state of the air quality in Sydney was notable.

“There’s a lot of bushfire smoke in the air so it’s pretty filthy, and hard to breathe sometimes,” he said.

Freshman Ash Withers, who didn’t return to her home in Victoria during break, also pointed out how the environmental conditions that led to the fires were also having a large impact. The heat and air quality have impacted the elderly, young children and individuals with asthma.

Withers’ family has not been threatened by the fires, though she has had to keep up on their safety.

“The fact that it has global attention speaks to how bad it really is. Because we have these fires every year. It’s just never been to this scale,” Withers said. “Definitely the amount of wildlife and bush that we’ve lost is insane. We’re never going to be able to get that back to the way that it was.”

Freshmen Matt Leary also didn’t return to his home in the southwest of Australia during break due to being a member of the basketball team, but has been keeping up on the situation through the news and social media.

“It’s obviously devastating to see fires anywhere, but especially when it’s right in your own back yard, it’s not exactly ideal,” he said.

Leary said that he had a few friends whose family owned farms that had been hit, including his best friend whose farm was completely wiped out. He has been regularly messaging to check in that they remain safe, with their house still standing.

“Obviously being here it’s just kind of hard to feel how they feel there. You want to be there and help out as much as possible, but unfortunately you can’t when you’re literally on the other side of the world,” he said.

While according to Leary, Australians prepare for the fires yearly as bushfires are a common occurrence in Australia, it seemed people had not put much thought into the possibility that something of this scale would occur despite warning signs.

“I feel like now that’s something of this level has happened, people will be a little more cautious (..) with how they go about preparing for summers now,” Leary said.

While Phillips noted he was surprised by awareness of the fires in the U.S, he stated one aspect Americans knew less about was the politics behind the crisis. Phillips explained that heavy criticism that has been lobbed at the government and Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s handling of fire.

“The government didn’t really step in early enough and sort of provide the funding they needed at the time that they did the most, so as a result it just got worse and worse. Only now that it’s received international attention is money sort of coming in. But it’s sort of too late,” Phillips said.

Phillips described Morrison’s response to the crisis as “dreadful” in his opinion, disapproving of his taking a vacation to Hawaii during the crisis and characterizing him as trying to draw attention away from the fires.

Withers also saw Morrison’s leadership and his views on climate change as a significant issue.

“He probably wouldn’t have brought in firefighters from America or Canada or New Zealand until people outside Australia found out it was happening. Which is probably why it got as bad as it is now,” Withers said. “It’s just going to keep getting worse. The fires next season will probably be worse than this season if climate change continues the way it is.”

The bushfire season will continue for several more months, which Phillips noted means that for now, all that can be done is to continue to limit the damage.

“The weather is so hot and it’s so dry and it’s so windy, there’s zero chance they’re going to be stopped within the near future. They’re at least going to continue for the rest of the summer. Especially given the lack of resources to fight the fires, I can’t really see them going away anytime soon,” Phillips said.

Carlos Flores-Gaytan, Co-News Editor
Co-News Editor

Tags:  australia bushfire climate change

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