Australia Travel Guide

Australia Wildfires: What You Need to Know About Traveling to Australia Right Now

PHOTO: Alex Coppel/Newspix/Getty Images

Devastating fires continue to burn across the continent, but Australia will need visitors more than ever as it recovers.

Nicknamed the “sunburnt country” by poet Dorothea Mackellar in 1908, Australia has always been prone to wildfires, often exacerbated by a combination of high temperatures, strong winds, and lack of rainfall.

The 2019–20 fire season has been one of the most severe on record, as Australia has been hit by major fires covering large areas in the state of New South Wales, as well as parts of Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia. While rural and regional areas are most at risk for fire damage, major cities including Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra are suffering from extremely poor air quality.

Older people, families with young children, and those with respiratory conditions should reconsider traveling to smoke-affected zones. Travelers should also make sure they have insurance and keep an eye out for flight cancellations. However, there are plenty of destinations that are still safe to visit.

Tourism Australia Managing Director Phillipa Harrison told Fodor’s that the number one priority right now is the emergency response and the safety of communities and tourists in affected areas. If you’re already in Australia or planning to visit, here’s how to stay safe and support the country during your trip.

What Is Going On?

Since October 2019, at least 1,700 homes have been destroyed in New South Wales and Victoria, with countless more damaged. Twenty-five people are known to have died in the fires, including three firefighters, and over 480 million animals are estimated to have been killed. Domestic flights were canceled in and out of Canberra on January 5 due to smoke, but international flights have been unaffected so far.

The most effective way to help Australia during this natural disaster is to donate money. You can donate directly to the NSW Rural Fire Service, the South Australian Country Fire Service, and the Victorian Country Fire Authority. There are also fundraising efforts to support Australia’s First Nations peoples, some of whom have been heavily affected by the fires. The RSPCA and WIRES are also seeking donations for rescued wildlife.

 

You may have seen terrifying images of the wildfires (known as bushfires in Australia) on social media, as well as videos of native wildlife searching for water and safety. Many of these photos are very real, but Buzzfeed and AFP have found some fake or misleading images also in circulation, so make sure to check the source of any information before changing your travel plans.

On the ground, a huge emergency response is being managed by the relevant state governments, alongside paid and volunteer fire services who are working around the clock to control the blazes. The military has been brought in to help evacuate in some areas and firefighters and experts from the U.S. and Canada are also assisting.

In contrast, Australia’s center-right government, led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has faced criticism for its lack of leadership during the crisis and long-term inaction on climate change.

After months spent evading questions about the link between climate change and the current wildfires, Morrison defended his government’s emissions reductions policies at a press conference in early January, saying that his policies will “protect our environment and seek to reduce the risk and hazard we are seeing today.”

What Is Causing the Fires?

Like in the U.S., most of Australia’s wildfires are started either intentionally or unintentionally by people. (Arson and other suspicious causes are suspected to be responsible for around half of all wildfires in the country.) The drier and hotter conditions created by climate change are helping these fires spread further and faster than ever, resulting in more frequent and more disastrous wildfire events.

2019 was Australia’s driest year on record. On January 4, temperatures hit 120 degrees in Sydney’s western suburbs, making it the hottest place on Earth. Experts agree that these dangerous fire conditions have been exacerbated by climate change.

Australia’s Indigenous peoples used traditional burning practices to manage the fire risk for tens of thousands of years before colonization. Today, hazard reduction burning is carried out by state fire agencies and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Unfortunately, climate change and a lack of government funding have made it even harder to prepare for and defend against wildfires.

Places to Avoid

In January 2020, New South Wales has declared a State of Emergency and Victoria is in a State of Disaster. In particular, tourists are advised to stay away from the South Coast of NSW, East Gippsland in Victoria, and Kangaroo Island in South Australia.

Even if you are only visiting Sydney or Melbourne, it may be worth bringing a P2 or N95 smoke mask, as they are in short supply in some parts of the country. For up-to-date information, check in with the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the relevant state Fire and Emergency Services agency.

Where to Go Instead

Australia is the world’s sixth-largest country, and the wildfires are concentrated in its southeastern corner. The large majority of hotels, restaurants and other businesses across the continent remain open and many popular attractions are unaffected by the wildfires.

Destinations including Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, areas around Perth, Exmouth and Broome in Western Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory are all safe to visit. Travelers can also contact local tourism operators and staff at Visitor Information Centres for advice when they arrive.

Tourism will be essential to the long-term economic prospects of affected areas. “As we have seen from past severe weather events and natural disasters, tourism is an extremely resilient sector,” said Harrison. “When affected communities are ready to once again welcome visitors, tourism will continue to play an important role in their supporting their recovery.”

On social media, travelers are being encouraged to visit recovering communities over the summer using the hashtag #gowithemptyeskies. (Esky is Aussie slang for a cooler, often used on road trips around the country.) An Instagram account called @spendwiththem is highlighting towns and stores affected by fire that are open for business.

In the future, experts predict Australia’s wildfire season will continue to start earlier and end later. If you want to minimize your risk, you can plan to visit fire-prone areas in the off-season.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology, the peak bushfire period in northern Australia is during the dry season (May to October), while in southern Australia the bushfire season generally occurs throughout summer and autumn (December to May).

How to Help from Home

The most effective way to help Australia during this natural disaster is to donate money. You can donate directly to the NSW Rural Fire Service, the South Australian Country Fire Service, and the Victorian Country Fire Authority. There are also fundraising efforts to support Australia’s First Nations peoples, some of whom have been heavily affected by the fires. The RSPCA and WIRES are also seeking donations for rescued wildlife.

Where to Find Updates

All travelers visiting Australia should monitor the situation carefully and comply with official advice. The Bureau of Meteorology provides weather updates across Australia, including the latest fire warnings and the ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster, is the most reliable source for fire-related news. The Fires Near Me and Live Traffic apps are handy tools in NSW, as is the VicEmergency app in Victoria.

Depending on where you’re planning to travel, you can check out the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, VicEmergency, South Australian Country Fire Service, ACT Emergency Services AgencyEmergencyWA Northern Territory Fire and Rescue ServiceQueensland Rural Fire ServiceTasmania Fire Service.

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