Author(s): Angelo Verzoni, Jesse Roman. Published on January 1, 2020.

No Escape

Recent Australian wildfires push the endangered koala to the brink of extinction


Wildfires are most often evaluated in human terms: lives lost, property damaged, acres burned. It’s not often that a focus of a major fire is the fauna or flora threatened by the advancing flames.

That was the case in November, however, when wildlife researchers and conservationists looked on in horror as several dozen large brush fires ripped through the states of Queensland and New South Wales in Australia, decimating local koala populations.

As many as 2,000 of the vulnerable marsupials have died in the blazes and many more are in danger after the fires ravaged up to 80 percent of the eucalyptus-rich forests the koalas inhabit, experts said. The eucalyptus trees, which are the koalas’ primary food source, will grow back—but it will take months, leaving the remaining animals vulnerable to starvation.

“We’ve lost such a massive swath of known koala habitat that I think we can say without any doubt there will be ongoing declines in koala populations from this point forward,” Mark Graham, an ecologist with the Australia Nature Conservation Council, told the Guardian newspaper.

The devastation prompted experts at the Australian Koala Foundation to say in November that the species is now “functionally extinct,” meaning there are not enough breeding pairs for the longterm viability of the species in the wild. Other experts have disputed that characterization, arguing that not enough is known about wild koala population numbers to definitively determine their fate.

What isn’t in dispute is how difficult it has been for rescue organizations to make headway in saving the koalas from the fast-moving fires, said Kellie Leigh, executive director of a wildlife scientific group in Australia. The situation is “just showing how unprepared we are,” Leigh said at a government hearing in early December. “There’s no procedures or protocols in place ... for when [animal rescuers] can go in after fire. We’re just helpless at the moment. … We have no way to deal with this, no way to manage it.”

High temperatures and a record-breaking drought primed the region for the brush fires that sparked throughout Eastern Australia in early November, months before wildfire season usually hits its peak. As of early December, there were still more than 100 wildland fires burning in New South Wales alone, many of which were still not contained. The fires are so far blamed for at least six human deaths and more than 1,000 structures lost.


London fire chief, in charge during Grenfell, resigns

London Fire Brigade Commissioner Dany Cotton has resigned amid accusations over how she handled the response to the June 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, which killed over 70 people.

In October, findings from the official government inquiry into the fire were made public, which claimed “serious failings” occurred in the brigade’s preparation and response to the incident, according to the Guardian.

One such claim, for instance, was that the fire brigade’s policy of allowing residents to “stay put” during a high-rise fire—versus evacuating them as soon as possible—was misguided and dangerous. Trusting in the idea that fires will not spread was an example of “gravely inadequate preparation and planning,” said Martin Moore-Brick, the inquiry chair. Cotton has also been widely criticized for suggesting her department hadn’t planned for a fire like Grenfell because they didn’t think it was likely.

Not everybody agrees with the criticism Cotton and the London Fire Brigade have received over the Grenfell response.

A blog published in November on the website of the Grenfell Action Group—a residents’ rights organization that for years before the June 2017 fire had been publicizing information about Grenfell Tower’s safety deficiencies—jumped to Cotton’s defense. It pointed out how some of the same people and groups who have criticized Cotton have stopped short of calling out the individuals responsible for wrapping the 24-story apartment building in combustible cladding and other dangerous materials—factors that at one point had largely been viewed as the main reason for the Grenfell fire’s high death toll. “Enough of the scapegoating,” the blog concludes. —AV

Dozens die in New Delhi factory fire

A fire in an illegal paper products factory in New Delhi, India, killed 43 people and injured dozens more on December 8. The blaze tore through the building before dawn, as workers were sleeping inside.

“There is no escape route, no option at all. I can’t even breathe,” one of the victims frantically told a friend over the phone before he died, according to the New York Times.

The four-story building was one of several thousand in the Indian capital that had been illegally converted into a factory, according to the Times. No fire safety inspections had been conducted, windows were blocked with metal bars, combustible materials clogged stairwells, and one of the building’s two exits was locked on the morning of the fire, a fire official told the newspaper. “There were no safety features,” he said. —AV

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor for NFPA Journal. ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal Top photograph: Getty Images