Australian bushfires a ‘monstrous’ event wreaking havoc on wildlife
Country reels from devastation of unprecedented fire season
R. Scott Nolen
February 12, 2020
On New Year’s Eve 2019, Drs. Kate Toyer and Tara Cashman sat down with their three kids and reviewed their escape plan.
The bushfires that had been burning for weeks were now threatening to overtake Batemans Bay, a coastal town in New South Wales, Australia, where the family lives and the veterinarians run a small animal clinic.
They had packed the car a month ago with food, water, and a few other essential items—enough for the family members and their cat to live a short time away from home.
The calls came at 6 the next morning: Evacuate now.
“We weren’t even asked to go to the evacuation center in town but to go straight to the beach,” said Dr. Cashman, explaining they did, in fact, drive 6 miles to an evacuation center because of the better facilities. “Thankfully, that was the right decision because the fires were so bad that those who evacuated to the beach actually had to stand in the water.”
Fire season in Australia typically begins late in the year during the hot, dry summer when a lightning strike or human negligence sets a tree or patch of grass alight.
Bushfires are destructive and often deadly. In the southeast state of Victoria, 173 people died during the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 that scorched more than a million acres of land and destroyed over 4,000 homes and other buildings.
The tragedy, one of the worst in Australia’s history, led to the creation of a task force to study all aspects of the government’s bushfire strategy. That investigation resulted in several reforms, including early warning alerts similar to the kind Drs. Toyer and Cashman received.
The changes are widely credited with the relatively low number of human fatalities despite the unprecedented severity of the 2019-20 fire season. At press time in late January, the government reported the fires had killed more than 30 people, burned over 25 million acres, and destroyed roughly 3,000 houses.
Most of the fatalities and property loss occurred in New South Wales, where three American firefighters were killed in a plane crash on Jan. 23, one of whom was Ian McBeth, son of Dr. William McBeth, a member of the AVMA Food Safety Advisory Committee (seesidebar).
“Batemans Bay was hit really hard early on,” said Dr. Toyer, adding that 350 homes were destroyed. “Most of the pictures you see in Western media, of the massive flames and burned-out landscapes, were taken in this area.”
The clinic Dr. Toyer runs with her partner, Dr. Cashman, was, like their home, damaged but not destroyed. The practice operated off a generator for more than a month.
“The South Coast has just been devastated since New Year’s Eve,” said Dr. Julia Crawford, president of the Australian Veterinary Association. She estimates over 200 veterinary practices have been affected, about 90 seriously.
Support from around the world has been pouring in, including from the AVMA and American Veterinary Medical Foundation as well as other organizations, to support veterinary- and animal-focused relief efforts. The Morris Animal Foundation has allocated $1 million for scientific research grants to fund studies on how the region’s wildfires have affected its native animals.
‘A monstrous event’
The most startling news about the bushfires has been the number of animals killed. Chris Dickman, PhD, a professor of ecology, conservation, and management of Australian mammals at the University of Sydney, estimates the fires will kill more than 800 million animals in New South Wales alone and impact a billion animals nationwide. By way of comparison, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimated up to 1 million wild and domesticated animals died during the 2009 Black Saturday brushfires.
As Dr. Dickman explained in a statement from the university, animals that survive the fires in the first instance by fleeing or going underground will return or reemerge into areas without the resources to support them. Others will fall victim to predators. Even for those birds or other animals able to flee to unaffected areas, they will rarely be able to successfully compete with animals already living there.
“I think there’s nothing quite to compare with the devastation that’s going on over such a large area so quickly,” Dr. Dickman said. “It’s a monstrous event in terms of geography and the number of individual animals affected.
“We know that Australian biodiversity has been going down over the last several decades, and it’s probably fairly well known that Australia’s got the world’s highest rate of extinction for mammals. It’s events like this that may well hasten the extinction process for a range of other species. So, it’s a very sad time.”
Dr. Crawford described Dr. Dickman’s estimates as “a fair assessment.”
“I talked to veterinarians who assisted in the animal part of the response early on. They were waiting for injured wildlife to be brought in, but nothing came in,” Dr Crawford said. “We think these fires are so hot and burn so fast that probably 90% of these animals died immediately.
“The deaths are just far more than we ever thought.”
How to explain the catastrophic loss of animal life? How, even with advance warning, were the Australian government and people caught off guard by the severity of the fires?
In September, the same month the 2019-20 bushfire season started, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology issued a special climate statement warning of elevated fire dangers for New South Wales and the neighboring state of Queensland. Australia is three years into one of the worst droughts in decades. Then, in December, a heat wave broke the record for the highest nationwide average temperature, with some areas reaching up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Together, these factors created an environmental tinderbox on a scale unlike anything the country had previously experienced.
“The bushfires this season are unique in that multiple fires are occurring simultaneously and joining up to form superfires,” explained Dr. Robert Johnson, director of Vets Beyond Borders, an Australian nonprofit that runs charitable veterinary programs in regions of Asia and the Pacific.
“We are in the middle of a serious drought in Eastern Australia that has created an extraordinary amount of fuel for the fires,” he said. “What also sets these fires apart from previous ones is the fact that they have affected such a large proportion of populated areas. The amount of acreage burned is about eight times larger than the 2018 Californian wildfires.”
With fire season expected to continue into the spring, the extent of the destruction is not yet fully understood.
“Everyone’s still in response mode,” Dr. Crawford said. The government puts the number of cattle and sheep deaths at more than 23,000, but she expects the final tally will be much, much higher.
When the last fire is finally out, Dr. Crawford worries about the economic fallout veterinary practices are sure to experience after months of interrupted services. She explained that Australian veterinarians generally do not charge to treat injured wildlife brought by the public to their clinics. Some practices provide as much as $3,000 in pro bono services weekly.
“That’s all fine and well in ordinary times; we enjoy it,” she said. “But after a crisis like this, when your practice is almost burnt down, you’re working from a generator, and the only patients you’re seeing are wildlife, it becomes problematic from a cost standpoint.”
“It’s summer here,” Dr. Crawford added, “and holidaymakers who’d normally bring their pets to these coastal practices aren’t coming. Those veterinarians have lost that revenue, and it’s just devastating.”
The country may see relief only temporarily, as conditions that caused the bushfires are predicted to continue, if not worsen, thanks to climate change.
Australia’s climate has warmed by just over 1 degree Celsius since 1910, leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events, according to the Meteorology Bureau’s State of the Climate 2018 report (PDF). At the same time, there has been a decline of around 11% in April-October rainfall in the southeast of Australia since the late 1990s. As a result, there has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather and in the length of the fire season across large parts of Australia, according to the report.
Australia is projected to experience further increases in sea and air temperatures, with more hot days and marine heat waves and fewer cool extremes. Decreases in rainfall across southern Australia with more time in drought are also predicted.
Bushfires claim veterinarian’s son
Ian McBeth, son of Dr. William McBeth, a member of the AVMA Food Safety Advisory Committee, was killed with two other Americans in a plane crash during a firebombing mission on Jan. 23 in Australia.
McBeth, 44, was piloting a C-130 Hercules loaded with flame retardant when the airtanker crashed around 1:30 p.m. in the Snowy Monaro area of southern New South Wales.
McBeth was working for Coulson Aviation, which provides aerial firefighting services worldwide. In a statement, Coulson said the accident was reported to be extensive.
Dr. McBeth told JAVMA News his son deployed to Australia on Dec. 28. 2019, for a tour that was scheduled to end Jan. 24.
McBeth was an experienced aerial firefighter with years of experience flying C-130s for the military and Coulson Aviation. He served with the Wyoming Air National Guard and Montana Air National Guard.
“Ian was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times, but firefighting was what he was good at and enjoyed doing. It’s a complex task. You have to be an expert pilot and navigate difficult terrain and weather,” Dr. McBeth said.
“I practice in a small town in northeastern Colorado, and Ian grew up in that practice,” he added. “Ian loved working horses and cattle and dogs and cats. Veterinary medicine was a part of his life.”
McBeth is survived by his wife, Bowdie, and their three children, his parents, William and Anneliese; and his siblings, Rick, Eleanor, and Aislinn.
The AVMA, American Veterinary Medical Foundation, and VCA Charities have joined forces on a second phase of fundraising to support those impacted by the bushfires ravaging Australia.
As of the end of January, the AVMA and the AVMF had raised over $125,000 for the Australian Veterinary Association’s Benevolent Fund. The AVMF received over $50,000 in individual donations coupled with a $50,000 matching grant from the AVMF, plus an additional $25,000 AVMA donation. Those funds are being sent to the AVA’s Benevolent Fund, which provides financial assistance to veterinarians who have lost their own property because of the fires or who have provided charitable care for impacted animals.
A second fundraising effort was announced Jan. 31, driven by a grant from VCA Charities that will match up to $50,000 in additional donations made to the AVMF on behalf of the AVA Benevolent Fund.
VCA Charities had held a fundraiser in January that also was meant to help veterinarians in Australia provide care to affected pets and wildlife. In total, VCA Charities has raised $150,000 and will provide three donations: one to support veterinarians, one to help wildlife, and one to help pets. VCA Charities will match every dollar contributed to the AVMF on behalf of the AVA Benevolent Fund, up to $50,000; 100% of the donations will be directed towards disaster relief efforts in Australia.
To make a donation, visit the AVMF website and use the AVMF code “Disaster Relief—AVA Benevolent Fund.”