Grand Circle associate volunteers on Kangaroo Island during bush fires
By David Thomas, O.A.T. Worldwide Contractor
Many regions of Australia have been feeling the effects of wild bushfires since October, which were highlighted by the world’s media when main regions in Australia were burning uncontrollably at the same time, between Christmas and New Year’s. These regions were the Blue Mountains (a few hours west of Sydney), the New South Wales South Coast (two-three hours south of Sydney), the Snowy Mountains region in New South Wales, the Gippsland regions of Victoria (four hours from Melbourne), the Adelaide Hills, and Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Between all these regions and some other smaller fires, over 7.3 million hectares (17.9 million acres) have been burnt across six states—equivalent to the size of Belgium and Denmark combined. Over half a billion animals may have perished, over 2,500 houses have been lost, and 28 people have lost their lives.
The generosity of Grand Circle Foundation and its travelers has greatly touched all associates and our tourism partners in Australia. We established two worthy recipients of the donations in Zoos Victoria (Healesville Sanctuary) and the Kangaroo Island Mayoral Fund. We are currently looking at further recipients where donations can be used quickly to those who need it most.
The disaster touched me personally having great friends and amazing wildlife on Kangaroo Island that had been effected. I decided to take 10 days and head over there to ensure the donations from our travelers were going to the people and wildlife that needed it most. My goal was also to help as much as I could with local tourism operators to get them back on their feet and also help the native wildlife in the burnt area with medical care, food, and water.
Kangaroo Island is just outside of the city of Adelaide (a 20-minute flight) and is sometimes called the Galápagos of Australia with its variety of native species all in the wild. Kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, penguins, sea lions, reptiles, and birdlife all inhabit the island in large numbers. Similar in size to Long Island, New York, it is home to 4,200 people and 700 houses. Its main industry is tourism and farming. The island was struck by two separate wild bushfires on December 23rd and January 3rd that turned into one huge one. It devastated the bush and farmland of up to 49% of the island, wiped out over 70 houses (more than 10%), over 200 sheds and buildings, and took the lives of two people.
I flew to Kangaroo Island on Monday, January 6th, only three days after the devastating fires on the previous Friday night, and I was a little nervous about what I may see. What struck me first was at Adelaide Airport, there were plane loads of volunteer and professional Country Fire Service personnel boarding both my flight and several other charters. Some of them were going in to help with recovery and take over shifts from weary firefighters before them. True heroes of this crisis! As I flew into Kangaroo Island, the active fire front, burnt-out bush, and fields were clearly visible from above. What struck me was the air quality was surprisingly good given the active front. It was probably due to the ocean location and the prevailing winds. I was also struck by the sight of a huge temporary army base set up the airport, with over 300 Australian Army Defense Force women and men from the 9th battalion who were ready to lend a hand with ground and air equipment, including Boeing Chinook helicopters and aircrafts. More true heroes!
Once on the ground, I met my good mate, Craig Wickham, who runs a small group tour operation on the island with a big Aussie hug, and it was obvious that he and his family had been through so much over the previous days. I found out that they were not allowed to stay at their home, as it was within five kilometers of a still burning but controlled fire front. We were able all to stay in a friend’s house out of harm’s way at Emu Bay. After helping with their third relocation in five days, Craig recounted the events of the past few nights when they believed their house was lost as the fire roared within two kilometers of their place. Only a sudden wind change saved their property, but many were not so lucky, and over the following week I heard and met several people who had lost their houses and or property to the fires.
As I mentioned, my goals were to help where I could, but I was mindful of not being in the way of locals or personal recovery. Craig had mentioned a wildlife sanctuary one hour away in the fire-ravaged zone that needed help, so we both decided to head to Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary the next day to lend a hand. We were met by 15 sanctuary staff and outside volunteers, some of which had lost their houses and livelihood only a few days earlier, but were here putting their hands up to help others. What was in front of us was daunting with burnt-out bush and buildings, trees over the road, and perished wildlife (up to about 700 in the area we were in). The encouraging news was there were green patches intermittently scattered throughout the moon-like burnt-out area which meant there was surviving wildlife. We quickly set about cutting up sweet potatoes to feed to the kangaroos and constructing water feeders using donated water pipes in the burnt out trees for the koalas. We then would stuff them with fresh eucalypts leaves we brought from the other end of the island so the Koalas would not starve. As we worked in the hot sun, we started to see more signs of life during the three full days spent there. In the small area, I counted 45 surviving koalas that were healthy, numerous kangaroos, wallabies, and echidna. Along with this, by Sunday, January 19th, we even had some rain and started to see the first greenery sprout amongst the burnt-out area. Truly breathtaking and will be a feature to watch over in the coming months as the Aussie bush regenerates in all of the fire affected areas.
The work at Hanson Bay was long and tough but it was so humbling working alongside locals and volunteers that had given up their time. It was honestly one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Not just helping the wildlife, but also to have a simple chat with effected locals and support them so they knew we cared.
An example of the true Aussie spirit in the face of adversity is a story I read on my flight home about a Kangaroo Island local farmer named Shane. Shane lived on Kangaroo Island, ran his own garlic farm, and was a Lieutenant in the Country Fire Service on the island. He spent over a week fighting the first fire, and like most local firefighters, he was exhausted and tired when the second most devastating front came through on January 3rd. In this fire, Shane was listening to reports of the fire raging at speeds of 50km an hour towards his house and property. He had been so busy saving and fighting the fires elsewhere that he had to rush to go see if he could save his house and the three dogs in his shed. He arrived at his house and all trees glowing bright red and alight in the midnight sky, but by some miracle, his shed was not burning yet, and the dogs were saved. Shane continued fighting the fires even though he had lost his own house. In the days afterward, the generosity of Aussies and people around the world was so great, a man from Western Australia drove his car with a caravan all the way from Western Australia (3000 km and four days’ drive) to give it to Shane to live in until he got back up on his feet.
While on Kangaroo Island, I also helped some small group tourism operators with new itineraries in the unburnt area and a plan for staffing over the coming months. Sadly, one issue is that several accommodation providers were burnt down, including the world-renowned Southern Ocean Lodge. The good news is most have already said they would rebuild and the places remaining are lifting the experience and taking on the load. This is common to all the fire affected regions.
As I left the island today, more good news is that cooler and lighter winds over the last few days have meant almost all spot fires are out and definitely contained. The recovery process is a long one but has the Grand Circle Foundation donation of $20,000 to the Kangaroo Island Mayoral Fund will make a huge difference. It will be distributed for the people who have lost homes and businesses, the mental health issues, and the wildlife that have been lost or rescued on the island. While I was on the island, I met with the CEO of Kangaroo Island Council, Mr. Greg Georgopoulos, and he wanted to thank Grand Circle Foundation and the travelers for their life-changing contribution to the bushfire relief on the island.
There is no doubt these bushfires have brought much destruction to people’s lives and possessions, as well as so much lost and injured wildlife, and the path of recovery in the devastated areas is a long one. We do thank all of our overseas mates for their generous donations and for showing they care greatly about us Aussies. It is important to keep in mind that one of the best ways that any overseas guests can help our country recover from this is to keep on traveling to Australia, and I encourage our American mates who have not been to Australia or would love to see us again to book a trip in the next 12 months. The media has done a great job in showing the fire tragedies to the world, and but keep in mind that Australia is the same size as the USA and the fires have had no direct impact on any of the areas that O.A.T. or Grand Circle travel to other than some days with poor air quality due to prevailing winds. With each day that passes, that issue is getting better, and we hope to welcome you in the remainder of 2020 or in 2021. Over 95% of Australia’s sights, wildlife, and people are here ready and waiting!