Critics of Australia’s government say international donors to the bushfire relief effort should be aware that their contributions could be letting the government off the hook for inadequately funding the country’s firefighting efforts.
Both Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the state government of New South Wales, the hardest hit region, have faced intense criticism for failing to greenlight new funds for fighting forest fires and for instead relying almost exclusively on volunteer firefighters to battle the devastating blazes.
Thousands also protested in Sydney and Melbourne on Friday to call for stronger action on climate change, which has been linked to the severity of this year’s fire season.
Australia’s county and regional fire service are government bodies predominantly staffed by volunteers, said Krystian Seibert, an expert in philanthropy and a fellow with the Faculty of Business and Law at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.
Although the fire services are government funded, they also collect donations, he said.
New South Wales Rural Fire Service has received considerable donations from around the world, including those solicited through a high-profile campaign by Australian writer and comedian Celeste Barber.
Her Facebook fundraiser, supporting the Trustee for New South Wales Rural Fire Service & Brigades Donations Fund, is now the largest drive in the social media platform’s history, raising some $50 million Australian (about $45 million Cdn) as of Friday night.
Seibert said Canadian donors may want to know that funds going to the Rural Fire Service (RFS) in New South Wales or other states will help these mostly volunteer firefighters to battle the fires, but they won’t support things like rebuilding after the flames are out.
The RFS can use donations to buy equipment and support the volunteers, he said.
“But if someone wants to donate funds, for example, to help with the relief of the suffering of victims — people who’ve lost houses or are undergoing psychological trauma, that’s not really the role of the office.”
There are many areas where the lines are blurred between the roles of government and philanthropy, Seibert said, but “in the case of something like this, it’s very clear that the responsibility for firefighting primarily should rest with government.”
“They do need to look at ensuring that firefighters in rural and regional areas have the adequate resources that they need, so that they aren’t reliant on donations for things such as equipment.”
A group of fire and emergency leaders have said they’ve tried since last April to get the prime minister to acquire more water bombers to fight bushfires. Just last week, Morrison announced that he’d commit $20 million Australian to lease fire-fighting aircraft from overseas.
Reliance on volunteers
In Australia, 90 per cent of firefighters are volunteers — a figure that sounds less startling when compared to Canada’s volunteer firefighters, who number approximately 144,000, or 83 per cent of all firefighters here.
But there’s one big difference, said Troy Mutch, national president of the Canadian Volunteer Fire Services Association and a volunteer firefighter in Maskwacis, Alta., about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton.
“In every province, we have a forest service agency,” said Mutch. “For example, in Alberta, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry has a wildfire division, and that division is responsible for all ground and aerial firefighting within a forest protection area.”
He estimates that at least half of Alberta falls into a forest protection area. If a fire falls slightly outside of a town limits, local volunteer firefighters might be the first on the scene, said Mutch, but usually staff wildfire crews will take over and send the volunteers home.
“Where in Australia, they don’t have as large of — not even close to — what we have for a wildfire firefighting segment that’s government run. They rely on their volunteer firefighters in Australia to fight all their bushfires.”
Morrison has also announced that volunteer firefighters in New South Wales who have spent at least 10 days fighting the fires this season will receive payment of $300 a day, to a maximum of $6,000 per person.
Some Canadians will be taking their concerns about Australia to the streets on Sunday, Jan. 19. In various locations around the globe, runners will participate in the Virtual Relief Run, with registration fees supporting the Australian Red Cross: Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund.
In addition to the Red Cross, organizations such as the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul Society are providing on-the-ground support to people who have lost their homes.
And the World Wildlife Fund and WIRES Wildlife Rescue, Australia’s largest wildlife rescue organization, are working to save wildlife after an estimated one billion animals have perished in the disaster.