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October 15, 2020

Australia recovers from Black Summer of wildfires

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Australia's Corryong wildfire
Australia’s recent fires ravaged wildlife and domestic animals. (Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals Media)

By the time the last bushfire of Australia’s historic Black Summer was extinguished, the world’s attention had long since shifted to the novel coronavirus burning across the globe.

Between September 2019 and this May, Australia experienced wildfires that burned more than 46 million acres, killed 34 people, and destroyed roughly 3,500 homes and thousands of buildings. Most of the death and destruction occurred in the southeastern state of New South Wales, while the Northern Territory accounted for approximately a third of the burned area.

As the wildfires raged, the Australian government created the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements to identify ways to avoid a repeat of the 2019-20 fire season. Findings are expected this October.

Three years of drought preceding the 2019-20 fire season created conditions that allowed multiple fires to form superfires affecting large portions of populated areas. “We have had areas affected by intense fires previously, usually in one state or one region, but never such a huge area. Our resources were completely overstretched,” said Dr. Julia Crawford, past president of the Australian Veterinary Association.

Conservative estimates are that over a billion animals died during the Black Summer, Dr. Crawford said. Tens of thousands of cattle perished, and as many as 100,000 sheep died on farms on Kangaroo Island. Rivers clouded by ash led to a lack of oxygenation, resulting in fish and other wildlife deaths.

“Many veterinarians told us that there was a paucity of survivors, and much of the work they were performing was euthanasias,” Dr. Crawford said. “Most horses were evacuated, and we did not hear of any stud farms or stables getting burnt out. There were a lot of animals, both domestic and native, treated for burns, in particular injuries to feet and pads.”

Fortunately, no veterinarians were injured by the fires. Neither were any veterinary clinics destroyed, although some were in areas under evacuation orders. Nevertheless, Dr. Crawford expects the psychological damage will last for years. “The grief relating to the billions of dead animals and near extinction of some of our most precious native species compounds this,” she said.

For most veterinary practices along the New South Wales coast, the Christmas summer holiday season is the busiest time of the year. Vacationing clients avoided the fire-ravaged region this past season, however. “The affected practices lost the major part of their yearly income, and now the pandemic has stopped tourists,” Dr. Crawford said.

Power outages and surges were a constant threat to sensitive practice equipment as well as drug and vaccine storage. Some practices relied on generators for weeks before power was finally restored. In many cases, insurance assessors were slow to finalize claims and compensate veterinarians for lost income.

Regarding the outpouring of support for Australia’s veterinary community, Dr. Crawford said, “We are still overwhelmed by the compassion and generosity of the international veterinary community and so grateful.”

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation, in partnership with VCA Animal Hospitals, the AVMA, and the public, contributed over $226,000 in fire relief funds to the AVA.

“The donations from the U.S. were very significant and allowed us to deploy funds with immediacy at a critical time,” Dr. Crawford said. “It also created security for the AVA Benevolent Fund in that we could provide ongoing relief where required.”

The AVA assisted 10 veterinarians who were most severely affected and compensated many other veterinarians for treating wildlife. Relief from the AVA varied from replacing items lost in the fire to financial help with unpaid bills.

Although recovery efforts have been slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many people are still living in tents and caravans, nearly every veterinary practice is back up and running, Dr. Crawford said. The AVA is currently working with practices to ensure they’re prepared for the upcoming fire season.