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Australia fires: Your questions about arson, travel and recovery


Australia fires: Your questions about arson, travel and recovery

Image copyright AFP Image caption Some farmers face a long and expensive road ahead Australia is battling a bushfire crisis that has left more than two dozen people dead and burned 10 million hectares (40,000 sq miles) of land. The fires are expected to last for many weeks yet – and the recovery process will…

A fruit farmer is comforted by a journalist in Batlow, New South WalesImage copyright

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Some farmers face a long and expensive road ahead

Australia is battling a bushfire crisis that has left more than two dozen people dead and burned 10 million hectares (40,000 sq miles) of land.

The fires are expected to last for many weeks yet – and the recovery process will go on for many years.

So is it safe to travel to Australia? Were these fires caused by criminal arson? And what can we all do to help?

We answer some of your questions here.

Were some of the fires started deliberately? – Samantha

This has been a huge talking point in recent weeks. And yes, some of the fires were due to arson, as they are every year.

But the widely circulated figure of nearly 200 people arrested for deliberately starting fires is inaccurate.

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Media captionSocial-media claims arson was a significant factor in the fires have proved inaccurate

Police in New South Wales said in January 183 people had been charged since November 2019 over “bushfire-related offences”. Of those, 24 were accused of deliberately lighting fires. The rest were over failures to comply with total fire bans – perhaps by lighting a campfire – or things such as discarding cigarettes or matches.

In Victoria, police say there is no evidence the huge East Gippsland or North East fires were caused by arson or suspicious activity. Queensland Police say of the 1,068 bushfires in the state since September, 114 (about 10%) have been “deliberately or maliciously lit through human involvement”.

Paul Read, a lecturer and natural disasters expert at Monash University, wrote in research published last November that in general, just under 90% of Australian bushfires were caused by human activity, which includes deliberate arson, carelessness or recklessness.

About 13% of the 62,000 fires a year in Australia are caused by lightning strikes, says Mr Read, which is what sparked the massive Gospers Mountain blaze. And of course how a fire starts has little to no effect on how big it will become.

Is there anything on a practical level people in other countries can do to help? – Sue Rally

Australian officials say anyone who wants to help should send money via official fundraising websites. The Australian Red Cross, RSCPA and Salvation Army are among the charities running special appeals. The largely volunteer fire services also take donations.

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What people in affected areas say they don’t need is donations of food, clothing or other physical contributions. Emergency officials say they have no way of storing or distributing these items and what people on the ground really need is cash.

Officials are also warning to be cautious – many fake charity pages have sprung up, some claiming to be in the name of people killed in fires. Officials in Victoria have said some scammers are even cold-calling homes to solicit donations.

What happens about holidays booked to Australia during this emergency? – Anne Grant

Australia is very big and the government body Tourism Australia says: “Many areas are unaffected and most tourism businesses are still open.” But it has suspended its UK ad campaign, featuring Kylie Minogue, while the fires are dominating the news.

It says people visiting Australia should check the most recent advice before departing and “remain informed about changing conditions whilst on the ground”, through government agencies, the Bureau of Meteorology and local tourism staff.

There’s no advice at present to avoid travelling to Australia. The current guidance from the UK’s Foreign Office is to monitor local media if you’re in or near affected areas. It warns “poor air quality can occur some distance from the sites of the fires and provoke respiratory conditions” and advises remaining across local official advice. The US is giving similar advice.

If you no longer want to travel Australia, the first step is to contact the company or agent you booked through to seek their advice. At the moment, UK tour companies are not obliged to offer a refund if you want to cancel.

If you have travel insurance, contact your insurer to ask what your options are. Many policies do not cover natural disasters. Of course, many tourism sites will be very keen for visitors to start coming back and spending as soon as possible.

Why was the army not brought in to help deal with the fires earlier? – Liz Menzies

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) became visibly involved in the operation in late December, when ships and aircraft were sent to Victoria to help firefighters tackling blazes in East Gippsland and to evacuate people trapped in the coastal town of Mallacoota.

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HMAS Choules was one of the navy vessels sent to get people out of fire-hit Mallacoota

But the ADF has been involved in the firefighting effort in some capacity since early September.

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Australia’s states and territories are responsible for their own disaster responses but, according to Australia’s disaster response plan, they can ask for federal help if they “cannot reasonably cope with the needs of the situation”.

The ADF stresses it is not trained or equipped to be a firefighting force.

How long will it take for land affected by the fires to recover? – Kevin Grant

There’s a long way to go before this is over. Australia’s fire season usually continues until well into March.

Some plants and forests have evolved to cope with or even – in the case of eucalyptus trees – thrive on fires. But the scale and intensity of these fires has been unprecedented, so there is fear even seeds deep in the soil may have been damaged.

“Until the fires subside, the full extent of damage will remain unknown,” says Dr Stuart Blanch, of WWF-Australia.

But many burned areas “will take decades to recover and some species may have tipped over the brink of extinction”.

Dr Blanch says some forests will never recover, while it will most likely be decades before some trees will be big enough to have the holes needed for animals to live in.

“Hence the damage from these fires could last at least two centuries,” he says.

How will cattle farmers survive after the devastating fires? – Janine

That’s a real concern now. Dairy Farmers Australia says about 70 farms have been hit. Thousands of cattle have been killed. BBC News spoke to one farmer who said he might now just have to sell up.

The Foundation for Rural Regeneration and Renewal, a not-for-profit agency that gives grants to help recover from fires, says for many communities “help will be needed for many years to come”.

How quickly farmland recovers depends on the size and heat of the fire. Most crops would of course be lost – though some growing underground may survive – so will need replanting. But flames can burn the nitrogen out of soil, meaning farmers will have to add nutrients, possibly for years.

Fruit and olive trees may actually survive a fire, even if they’re severely damaged, but will take a few years before they fully recover. And of course the costs for farmers could be astronomical.

The Insurance Council of Australia says overall A$700m (£370m) in losses have been filed so far.

What are other countries doing to help Australia? – Roy Burton / Is the UK doing anything? – Jock Scott

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Media captionUS firefighters arrive in Australia

Several countries have sent firefighting experts or equipment to help out. Among them:

  • The National Interagency Fire Centre, in the US, has sent 81 firefighters to Australia – 37 in New South Wales and 44 in Victoria. They’re replacing dozens of personnel who’ve been out there since December
  • The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre has 87 firefighters in Australia
  • New Zealand sent over its largest ever deployment – more than 150 firefighters as well as helicopters and military personnel
  • Singapore has sent two Chinooks and 42 military personnel to help with the relief efforts
  • Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea are among other countries offering financial or military support
  • The UK has said it is ready to provide assistance.

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