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Whatever happened to… the Australian bushfires

Smoke from wildfires shrouds a road near Moruya, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Rick Rycroft

On this episode of the Global News podcast Whatever Happened To…?, journalist Erica Vella revisits Australian bushfires that started in 2019.

Following years of drought, Australia was ravaged by sweeping bushfires that began in 2019; 33 people were killed and thousands of others were displaced.

Bushfires are an annual threat during Australia’s dry summers, but this wave of fires came early, catching many by surprise.

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The speed of the fires, coupled with the consistently dry conditions, created a situation firefighters had to struggle to control.

Read more: Hot, dry and dangerous: Australia’s ‘catastrophic’ bushfires creep toward Sydney

New South Wales, a coastal state, was the hardest hit. The region located in the eastern part of the country is home to about six million people.

Nathan Barnden, who has been working as a volunteer firefighter for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service since he was 16 years old, knew the 2019 fires were going to be bad ones.

“Volunteer firefighting has been an aspect of my family for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was a firefighter. My dad is still a firefighter. My younger brother is a firefighter, so it’s something that was in the family,” he said.

“We could see (2019) shaping up to be a bad one. … We certainly were right in that aspect. We have had fires in New South Wales of quite horrific nature before, but nothing to the extent of what occurred this summer.

“We were looking at essentially one long band of fire from the northern tip of our state right through to the southern tip; we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of kilometres.”

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Read more: Australia wildfire smoke turns sky orange in NZ, seen in parts of South America

According to Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, more than 10 million hectares of land was affected.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates the bushfires killed or displaced nearly three billion animals, including 143 million mammals, 2.5 billion reptiles, 180 million birds and 51 million frogs.

Click to play video 'After Australia’s wildfires: What happens when 1 billion animals die?' After Australia’s wildfires: What happens when 1 billion animals die?
After Australia’s wildfires: What happens when 1 billion animals die? – Mar 6, 2020

The devastation motivated people around the world to donate.

The Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service — also known as WIRES — received more than $90 million to help native Australian wildlife.

Read more: Australian zoo welcomes ‘Ash,’ first koala joey born after wildfires

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Barnden said that on Dec. 31, 2019, he was called to fight a fire in the village of Quaama, New South Wales.

“Before we knew that, this particular fire had grown to a level that was well and truly out of our capability to put out with the resources that we had,” he said.

“We put all of our firefighting trucks around that building and defended that building while the main fire front hit the town. … It was one of the most intense and horrific firefights I’ve ever, ever experienced in my life and ever seen.

“And we were looking at, you know, 50 to 60 people who were sheltered in this station whose lives were very much dependent on how well we defended them at this point.”

That night, Barnden would go on to rescue 13 people caught in the flames; at one point, it nearly cost him his life.

Read more: Whatever happened to… the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge?

In this episode, Erica Vella speaks with Nathan Barnden about his story, learns about the animals and land that was destroyed and finds out how the country is recovering since the massive blaze a year ago.

— with Files from Rachael D’Amore

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Contact:

Email: erica.vella@globalnews.ca

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