Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 February 2020

Australia's bushfires: Is it safe to travel?

Several people have died, over 480 million animals have been affected and tourists are being evacuated, here's the latest travel advice

Australia is burning.

It has been since the "fire season" started in September last year and it shows no signs of stopping.

The fires have caused the deaths of 20 people and millions of wildlife. Authorities are struggling to contain the blazes as persistent heat and drought continue to intensify the situation.

Where are the fires?

Since the season began the blazes have been countrywide but New South Wales in the country's southeast has been the hardest hit. On Thursday, authorities declared a state of emergency for the next seven days. This follows two similar declarations made by New South Wales in November and December last year. South Australia, Victoria and Queensland are also currently battling several blazes.

What's causing the crisis?

Australia has a fire season every year. In the north of the country it typically runs from April to September while the south suffers from bushfires in the dry summer season. This year, the fires have been one of the worst in Australia's history.

The country recorded its hottest day ever in December, and the heatwave has continued to spread across the country. This follows Australia's driest ever spring season and continued drought, with many places across the country experiencing rain shortfalls for the last few years. Strong winds have also spread the fires.

What are authorities doing?

Firefighters battles a fire near Bendalong, Australia, Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. Navy ships plucked hundreds of people from beaches and tens of thousands were urged to flee before hot, windy weather worsens Australia's devastating wildfires. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Firefighters battles a fire near Bendalong, Australia. AP Photo

Despite the raging fires, Australia's top officials have continued to downplay climate change, refusing to call the worsening situation a climate emergency.

Across the country, firefighters, police, army and navy personnel have worked tirelessly to try to bring the fires under control and evacuate those in danger. They have been assisted by the Red Cross and thousands of volunteers.

On Friday, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, which provides emergency services to more than 95 per cent of the state, has urged people to evacuate as soon as possible.

On Thursday, pictures surfaced showing neighbouring New Zealand's glaciers turning brown from the ash and smoke from Australia's bushfires. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, took to Instagram to express her devastation at the fires and pledge more support from New Zealand's firefighters.

Wildlife destruction

Over 480 million animals have been affected by the bushfires in New South Wales. That's according to a statement from Professor Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney.

"Many of the affected animals are likely to have been killed directly by the fires, with others succumbing later due to the depletion of food and shelter resources and predation from introduced feral cats and red foxes," said the University in a statement.

These figures only quantify wildlife destruction in one state. The actual figure of loss across the country will be much higher.

Social media has been inundated with pictures of Australian animals suffering due to the bushfires. In November, a woman risked her life by running into a burning forest to rescued a badly burned koala bear. The marsupial died soon after from his injuries.

A video showing a thirsty Koala gulping water from a cyclist made headlines last week, as did a video showing kangaroos fleeing their burning habitats.

Is it safe to travel to Australia?

Tourists have been urged not to travel to New South Wales where there is an official state of emergency. Evacuations are already taking place and travellers arriving in the city will add to delays and traffic jams.

Several parts of the eastern state of Victoria and the Alpine region are also being evacuated and travellers should stay away as bushfires look set to burn higher this weekend thanks to rising temperatures.

Two tourist leave zones have been announced by New South Wales authorities. The zones stretch almost 300 kilometres along the New South Wales coast towards neighbouring Victoria state. On Thursday, January 2, residents and visitors in two inland areas including popular holiday resorts in the Snowy Mountains were told to evacuate before strong expected on Friday, January 3 and Saturday, Janaury 4.

Several tourists have been caught up in the destruction caused by the fires. Many have used social media to document their troubles.

However, large parts of Australia remain unaffected. Travellers visiting regions in Australia where there is currently no state of emergency should monitor local news reports as bush fires can spread quickly and start suddenly.

Tourism advice

Despite evacuation in designated areas, Tourism Australia is advising travellers that many parts of Australia are safe for visitors. AFP PHOTO / ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY
Despite evacuation in designated areas, Tourism Australia is advising travellers that many parts of Australia are safe for visitors. AFP PHOTO / ROYAL AUSTRALIAN NAVY

The country's tourism authority is keen to keep tourism dollars to help the country through this time of crisis. Tourism Australia has reassured travellers that it is safe to visit many parts of Australia, but advised tourists to recheck information before they travel.

Phillipa Harrison, managing director of Tourism Australia, said in a statement: “while bushfires continue to impact parts of Australia, many areas are unaffected and most tourism businesses are still open.

"We would encourage all travellers coming to Australia to seek the most up to date information prior to departure, and remain informed about changing conditions while on the ground.

"The Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology provides overall weather updates for all parts of Australia, including the latest fire warnings: www.bom.gov.au".

More resources

Travellers with upcoming travel to Australia can find out more information on the situation via the below links:

Updated: January 3, 2020 05:36 PM

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