Rising from the Ashes

With bushfire season around the corner, what could be improved this year to avoid a repeat of the catastrophic 2019/2020 summer?

Australia is no stranger to bushfires, but nothing could have prepared the nation for the horrors and significant loss, caused by the summer of 2019/2020.

Thousands of homes were lost, more than 12.6 million hectares of land burnt, more than one billion animals were killed, and 11.3 million Australians affected by smoke.

These massive figures alone describe how big last year’s bushfire crisis was, and if it wasn’t for brave emergency teams, the numbers would have been much higher.

Bushfire damage by land type. Infographic by Lisa Janaulksnis

Naomi Withers, Spatial Systems Stream Lead of the federal Department of Environment Land Water and Planning, was at the forefront of the emergency response during the 2019 – 2020 bushfires.

Withers is a specialist in fire mapping and worked closely with emergency police and fire fighter crews to identify where the fires were located, and what kind of land was burning.

The bushfires began in late 2019, but Australia’s hot summer weather mixed with high winds accelerated the already fast-moving flames into 2020. T

The fires impacted all of Australia, including native animals, land and communities.

Over a billion animals would have been killed in the bushfires, including more than one third of Australia’s koala population, as well as a large number of livestock, according to University of Sydney ecologist, Chris Dickman.

“They lost lots of stock up north – I know that in Hume, up near Corryong and Wodonga, they lost thousands of sheep and cattle,” Ms Withers said.

“In New South Wales and Queensland it was pretty bad; there were massive impacts on the community and Australian businesses.”

The bushfires resulted in the loss of almost 3,000 homes, as well as thousands of buildings; impacting families and businesses.

Along with locating active fires, and mapping where the fires had passed through, Ms Withers assisted in identifying the different land types and agriculture that were affected or would be in the future.

“We have a tool on our sites that does a “cookie cut” on our data sets that show where the fires were, and that tells us what agriculture was there, how many properties were burnt, and all sorts of information on sorts of infrastructure was there,” she said.

“It allows us to have a look into what was impacted or will be impacted by a fire.”

According to the data from this tool, Ms Withers explains, “these fires were the worst in many ways when looking at total land burnt.”

Throughout bushfire periods, she travelled across Australia to work closely with fire crews.

With her team she created maps which firefighters and police officers would keep on their phones, as well as having paper copies on them at all times.

These maps would identify where the fires were, where the fires had passed, where the fire was heading and what kind of land it would be heading towards.

“The most important thing in these emergency response situations is to have updated and current maps so the crews know how to get in and out, and they know exactly where the fire is, and what direction it is moving,” she explained.

Australia’s dry conditions meant that because of the draught, as well as high winds; the fires were fast moving during the hot summer days, but normally when night falls they usually slow down because of a drop in temperature, making it easier for fire crews to contain the blaze.

Unfortunately, on top of the dry weather conditions, the bushfires continued to burn and move at a fast pace overnight.

This was irregular behaviour for last year’s Australian bushfire season, so this factor scared a lot of communities, and fire fighters themselves.

“Australia was at the end of a bit of a drought, so fire behaviour was not normal,” Ms Withers explains.

“Because the land was so dry, the fire behaviour was really bad.”

She recalls feeling scared when the fires would move so quickly, while she was usually stationed only a few kilometres from active bushfire locations.

“The main one I remember, was the fire that came from New South Wales, which then came into Victoria, overnight it travelled 82 kilometres which was terrifying.”

Throughout the crisis, the fires received a lot of media attention from both journalists and individuals on social media.

This benefitted the country, with continuous support and sizeable donations from across the globe.

Although this attention got the word out, it unfortunately exacerbated fake news.

False imagery of fire maps and Australia burning circulated, mainly on social media, causing confusion.

“During the fires, I didn’t actually see many false fire maps as I was a bit pre-occupied with my work, but it is extremely important for people to have correct fire maps – especially people in Australia who might be in danger,” Ms Withers said.

Many of the images were over-dramatized and didn’t affect many people at all as those who were in danger were already warned and given factual information about the bushfires and their risks.

Most of the people and companies who got their images and maps wrong have come forward to apologise and set the record straight, with more often than not the situation being one of misunderstanding or miscommunication.

Above: More accurate information about Australia’s bushfires can be provided with simple measures like scaling maps or visualisations


Many land types had been affected, putting Australian businesses and companies in difficult situations.

In May this year, the federal government pledged $2 billion dollars over two years, for a new bushfire recovery agency and payments to those who have been affected, with additional help if required.

The funding was allocated to local governments, wildlife, charities, rural financial counsellors, children’s disaster payments and mental health, to name a few.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the additional help last May to help communities rebuild.

“We’re focused on the financial cost, we’re focused on the human costs and ensuring we can do everything we can, as quickly as we can, to support that recovery effort,” Mr Morrison said.

Although the federal government provided additional support, some say it is not enough for all the damage caused by the fires and their effects on people’s lives.

Additionally, after the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of the funds have been pushed to the side, leaving bushfire victims feeling forgotten.

The drastic change in news cycle in a coronavirus-struck world pushed bushfire-affected communities out of the spotlight, making it even more challenging for them to re-build.

“Some parts of Gippsland which are very poor, socio economically, the communities are really not wealthy, and don’t have a lot of infrastructure, they will be really struggling to come back,” Ms Withers said.

“They are kind of the forgotten people because unfortunately if coronavirus hadn’t have occurred, I think there would have been a huge response at the forefront, to help them re-build; and you know, there would still be a lot of talk about it, but it’s been a bit pushed back in the media now.”