Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 1, 2020.

Wildlife Toll

New report estimates Australian wildfires in 2019 and 2020 killed or displaced 3 billion animals


A report released in July by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced during Australia’s devastating 2019–2020 wildfire season. Earlier estimates had placed the wildlife toll from the fires closer to 1 billion.

Researchers involved with the study expressed shock over the new figure.

“It’s hard to think of another event anywhere in the world in living memory that has killed or displaced that many animals,” WWF–Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman said in the report foreword. “This ranks as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history.”

“When you think about nearly three billion native animals being in the path of the fires, it is absolutely huge,” said Professor Chris Dickman of the University of Sydney. “It’s a difficult number to comprehend.”

Reptiles bore the brunt of the blazes, according to the report, with nearly 2.5 billion of them affected. “This is because densities of reptiles can be much higher than what is typical for other [animals],” the report says. Skinks—a type of lizard that serves as an integral component of the diets of predators such as snakes and feral cats—accounted for 16 of the 20 most-affected reptile species.

While estimating 143 million mammalian species were affected by the fires, the report makes no specific mention of koalas, an endangered mammal whose numbers were expected to sink by the thousands as a result of the fires. In January, as powerful photos of burned koalas flooded the news, experts at the Australian Koala Foundation declared the marsupials “functionally extinct” after the blazes decimated their primary food source, eucalyptus trees.

Although the report’s findings are technically not yet final, researchers say the figure of 3 billion is unlikely to change.

Wildlife’s relationship with wildfire can be precarious. While the WWF report paints a grim picture for many of the species calling Australia’s bushland home, some species have been documented to thrive in the wake of wildfire—most notably the black-backed woodpecker. “For decades, it has been held up as a prime example of a species that requires burned areas to survive,” National Geographic wrote in 2019. “It mainly feeds on the larvae of beetles that colonize dying and dead trees after wildfires, and it excavates cavities in dead trees for its nests.”

The Australian wildfires burned primarily from September 2019 through March 2020, killing 34 people, destroying nearly 6,000 buildings, and inflicting over $4 billion in damage, according to multiple media sources. In January, Paul Read, co-director of the National Center for Research in Bushfire and Arson at Monash University in Melbourne, told the New York Times that the fires were the country’s “worst peacetime catastrophe” ever and blamed them largely on the earth’s warming climate.

Alexandria, Egypt
Eqyptian hospital fire kills 7 patients

Seven patients being treated for COVID-19 in the intensive care unit at Badrawy Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt, died in June when a fire swept through the facility.

Officials blamed the blaze on an electrical short-circuit in an air-conditioning unit. “In just seconds, there was a massive fire and none of the workers were able to control the situation because of the rapid spread,” Badrawy Hospital said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.

AP reported that the incident highlights Egypt’s struggles to fight the coronavirus pandemic and also noted that “safety standards and fire regulations are poorly enforced in Egypt and have been linked to many deaths.”

Fires in hospitals around the world, especially in developing nations, are a frequent occurrence. “Hospitals in low- and middle-income countries often lack strict building codes, certification processes, and regulatory oversight,” Robyn Gershon, a researcher at New York University’s College of Global Public Health, told NFPA Journal in its January/February 2020 article on the international hospital fire problem. “Everything from poor construction to a lack of emergency preparedness within the hospitals can lead to adverse outcomes in staff, visitors, and the most vulnerable population—patients—during fires or other emergencies.”

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Siberia, Russia
Russian wildfires on pace to make history

In late July, wildfires burning vast swaths of land across Russia’s Siberia region were on pace to become the country’s largest on record after burning an area the size of Greece.

Wildfires in Siberia over the summer torched massive swaths of land. (Reuters) 

“Russia’s sprawling Siberia region became a climate hotspot, heating up much faster than the rest of the planet. This summer has already brought extreme heat waves, oil spills caused by thawing permafrost, and raging forest fires,” said Greenpeace Russia Wildfire Unit Head Grigory Kuksin, according to CBS News. “Russian authorities must work fast to stop cities [from] being filled with toxic smoke.”

By July 21, the fires had burned some 47 million acres of land, part of a larger trend of wildfires burning throughout the Arctic since April. Some of the smoke from the Russian fires had even made its way to Alaska, where skies have become hazy as a result.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it continued well into the month of August and perhaps even early September,” Patrick Doll of the National Weather Service’s Anchorage office told the Anchorage Daily News.

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal Top photograph: Getty Images