PDF version [301KB]
Richards and Nigel Brew
Foreign Affairs, Defence & Security
Science, Technology, Environment & Resources
This quick guide aims to answer some of the frequently
asked questions relating to the 2019–20 Australian bushfire season that started
in September 2019. Although the major fires are now considered
extinguished and the bushfire season is drawing to a close, some of the
information outlined below may still be subject to change. Similarly, some of
the information is by necessity an estimate, or sourced from media reporting,
the accuracy of which has not been verified.
Note: Updates and additions to this quick guide are contained in the July 2021 paper 2019–20 Australian bushfires—frequently asked questions (updates).
How many people died?
On 4 February 2020 Prime Minister Scott Morrison
confirmed in a speech to Parliament that 33 people
died as a result of the 2019–20 bushfires. In a speech to Parliament on the
same day, Senator
Larissa Waters named the 23 people who had so far been identified, listed
here in alphabetical order, as:
|Rick A DeMorgan Jr
|Paul Clyde Hudson
In a speech to the NSW Parliament on 6 February 2020, NSW
Member of Parliament, Greg Piper, was one of several MPs who named another nine
people who died (listed below in alphabetical order), and acknowledged a 56‑year-old
man who died in the Cobargo fire but was yet to be formally identified:
How many firefighters died?
On 31 January 2020 the Australasian Fire and
Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC) stated that a total of nine firefighters
had died (included in the overall total of 33 deaths). On
4 February 2020, in a speech to Parliament, Prime
Minister Scott Morrison named the nine firefighters, listed here in
alphabetical order, as:
|Rick DeMorgan Jr (US)
|Paul Hudson (US)
||Ian McBeth (US)
American firefighters Captain Ian McBeth,
First Officer Paul Hudson and Flight Engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr were killed when
their water-bombing C-130 Hercules aircraft operated by Coulson Aviation crashed in southern NSW
on 23 January 2020.
How many houses were destroyed?
A tweet by AFAC published on 28 February 2020
stated that a
total of 3,094 houses had been lost across NSW, Victoria, Queensland, ACT,
Western Australia and South Australia. On 12 February 2020 the NSW Rural
Fire Service (RFS) reported that 2,439 homes had
been destroyed in NSW.
How much land was burned?
A tweet by AFAC published on 28 February 2020
stated that over
17 million hectares had been burned across NSW, Victoria, Queensland, ACT,
Western Australia and South Australia.
The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment
the impact of the 2019–20 fires’ (last updated on 27 February 2020) states:
The 2019-20 bushfires in New South Wales (NSW)
have been unprecedented in their extent and intensity. As of 28 January 2020,
the fires in NSW had burnt 5.3 million hectares (6.7% of the State), including
2.7 million hectares in national parks (37% of the State’s national park
The Department also notes that in NSW:
• More than 80% of the World
Heritage listed Greater Blue Mountains Area and 54% of the NSW components of
the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage property have been
affected by fire.
• 55 parks or reserves have
had more than 99% of their area affected by fire
• 70 parks or reserves have
75-99% of their area affected
• 29 parks or reserves have
50-74% of their area affected.
On 11 February 2020 the NSW RFS Major Fire
Update noted (content now removed):
A large number of major fires that have burned for some
months have now been set to out. These include:
• Myall Creek Road (Richmond Valley)
- 121,306 hectares
• Kerry Ridge (Muswellbrook) -
• Gospers Mountain (Hawkesbury) -
Erskine Creek (Blue Mountains) -
• Green Wattle Creek (Wollondilly) -
Morton (Wingecarribee) - 23,004
• Currowan (Shoalhaven) - 314,598
The Bureau of Meteorology noted in its Annual
Climate Statement 2019, published on 9 January 2020, that, ‘The
extensive and long-lived fires appear to be the largest in scale in the modern
record in New South Wales, while the total area burnt appears to be the largest
in a single recorded fire season for eastern Australia’.
On 8 February 2020 the ACT
Emergency Services Agency (ESA) stated that the Orroral Valley fire was approximately
86,562 hectares in size.
Various sources quoted an incident update from the South Australian
Country Fire Service (CFS) on 31 January 2020 which reported that 210,606
hectares of land on Kangaroo Island (about 48 per cent of the Island) had
been burned. The South Australian Department for Environment and Water stated
on 7 February 2020 that over
90,000 hectares of national park in South Australia had been burned.
On 28 February 2020 the Victorian Country Fire Authority
declared that ‘all significant fires’ in Victoria had now been contained, and
noted that more than 1.5
million hectares of land had been burned.
News article, published on 14 January 2020, stated:
federal government is set to revise the total amount of land burnt in Australia
this bushfire season after millions of hectares in the Northern Territory
wasn't included in the official count. Recent figures put the number of
hectares destroyed at around 10 million, however this did not include nearly 7
million hectares of land in the Northern Territory.
Since August, the beginning
of the bushfire season in Australia, approximately 6.8 million hectares of land
has burnt in the Northern Territory, which has experienced a relatively average
bushfire season and not been gripped by same the level of crisis seen in many
other parts of the country.
How many animals died?
Conservative estimates, based on NSW and Victoria only, project
losses of over one billion mammals, birds and reptiles combined. This excludes insects, the loss of which has been reported
to be in the ‘hundreds of billions’.
On 8 January 2020, Professor Chris Dickman, an expert from
the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Science in the ecology, conservation and
management of Australian mammals, estimated
that more than one billion animals nationally had so far been killed in the
bushfires, with more than 800 million of those in NSW. His calculations were
deliberately conservative, as the university’s statement notes, ‘the true
mortality is therefore likely to be substantially higher than those estimated’.
Professor Dickman’s estimate was widely reported, including
overseas, and as an RMIT
Fact Check article published by the ABC on 31 January suggested, it was
also generally supported by other experts in the field. Supporting the
probability that the number killed is in fact much higher, the article notes:
Professor Dickman told Fact Check, his estimate of 1 billion
animals is based on projected losses only in NSW and Victoria; his figures do
not take into account losses of wildlife in areas such as Kangaroo Island in
South Australia, or in the other states.
Dr Mark Eldridge, principal research scientist at the Australian
Museum in Sydney, was cited in the ABC Fact Check article as saying:
... there is "no good data" on what to expect in
terms of proportion of animals that might have perished outright in the fires
or that could have survived. Nor is there any data on what proportion of
animals might have succumbed to injuries, starvation or predators in the
How many species have become
Various modelling suggests that the fires have had a
significant impact on many rare or threatened animals, plants, and insects, to
the extent that some of the losses are feared to be permanent.
On 20 January
2020 the Australian Government’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the
Environment released an
initial list of threatened and migratory species that have ‘more than 10%
of their known or predicted distribution in areas affected by bushfires in
southern and eastern Australia from 1 August 2019 and 13 January 2020’. The
analysis was conducted by comparing fire maps from state fire agencies with ‘maps
of the modelled distributions of species protected under the Environment
Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999’. Preliminary results
indicated that ‘49 listed threatened species have more than 80% of their
modelled likely or known distribution within the fire extent’.
this analysis, on 11 February 2020 the Department published a ‘provisional list of 113 animal species that
have been identified by experts as the highest priorities for urgent management
intervention’ following the 2019–20 bushfires:
Most of these animals have potentially had at least 30% of
their range burnt, and many have had substantially more. The provisional list
includes 13 bird, 19 mammal, 20 reptile, 17 frog, 5 invertebrate, 22 crayfish
and 17 fish species. The priority animals were identified based on the extent
to which their range has potentially been burnt, how imperilled they were
before the fires (for example, whether they were already listed as vulnerable,
endangered or critically endangered), and the physical, behavioural and
ecological traits which influence their vulnerability to fire.
On 19 February 2020 the Department published an initial list of threatened ecological communities that ‘have more than 10% of their estimated distribution in areas
affected by bushfires in southern and eastern Australia between 1 July 2019 and
11 February 2020’. Preliminary
results indicated that four of the 84 nationally listed threatened ecological
communities have ‘more than 50% of their estimated distribution within the fire
An article published on 19 January 2020 by The
satellite imagery to overlay burnt areas (up to 7 January 2020) with the
approximate distributions of all the threatened animals and plants listed
under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
The analysis was restricted to ‘mediterranean’ and temperate zones of
south-east and south-west Australia and found that ‘99% of the area burned in
the current fires contains potential habitat for at least one nationally listed
threatened species’ and that ‘approximately 70 nationally threatened species
have had at least 50% of their range burnt’.
It also reported that threatened plants were the most affected,
noting that ‘twenty-nine of the 30 species that have had more than 80% of their
range burnt are plants’ and that several species of plants have had ‘their
entire range consumed by the fires’. Other species that were severely affected
included the Kangaroo Island dunnart and the Kangaroo Island glossy black
cockatoo, the populations of which numbered only in the hundreds prior to the
published on 15 January 2020 by the Australian National University stated:
Australia’s current bushfire crisis could wipe out some of
our rarer insect species, according to a group of experts. Associate Professor
Michael Braby from The Australian National University (ANU) says the bushfires
will have a huge impact on our native insects, as well as the plants and
animals that rely on them.
published on 4 January 2020 by The Guardian explained:
Bushfires don’t just burn animals to death but create
starvation events. Birds lose their breeding trees and the fruits and
invertebrates they feed on. Ground-dwelling mammals that do survive emerge to
find an open landscape with nowhere to hide, which one ecologist said became a
“hunting arena” for feral cats and foxes.
Which countries offered/provided
In a speech to Parliament on 4 February 2020 Prime
Minister Scott Morrison stated that 70 countries had offered assistance
with the Australian 2019–20 bushfires. Listed below (in alphabetical order) are
those countries for which individual announcements or reports could be found:
A tweet by AFAC published on 28 February 2020
stated that in terms of the overseas ‘resources’
deployed, 239 were from Canada, 360 were from the US, and 320 were
from New Zealand.
What military assistance was
In addition to the ongoing
logistical and engineering support from the Australian Defence Force (ADF),
a historical precedent was set on 4 January 2020 when the Prime Minister, the Minister
for Defence, and the Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance,
Natural Disaster and Emergency announced the ‘compulsory
Call-Out of Australian Defence Force Reserve Brigades for the first time in the
country’s history’, involving the deployment of up to 3,000 Reservists. It
was also announced that one of the Royal Australian Navy’s two largest ships,
HMAS Adelaide, would join two other Navy vessels in preparation for the
evacuation of people from fire-affected areas along the coast, and that an
additional three Chinook helicopters and six other aircraft would also be
In a speech to Parliament on 4 February 2020 Prime
Minister Scott Morrison noted that 6,500 ADF personnel overall had been
mobilised, including 3,000 Reservists.
As at 14 February 2020, approximately 5,400 ADF personnel (including
1,400 Reservists) were still supporting Operation
Bushfire Assist. Some 201 international military personnel were also
assisting. As at 11 March 2020, numbers had dropped to about 450 ADF personnel
(including about 220 Reservists). These figures are updated regularly and have fluctuated
over the course of the 2019–20 bushfires. According to the Department of
Defence, ‘ADF support will continue for as long as required’.
According to the Operation Bushfire Assist webpage,
as at 10 March 2020 the ADF had:
- cleared 4,848 km of roads
- cleared/repaired 1,287 km of fencing
- cleared 240 km of firebreaks
purified 3.9 million litres of water on Kangaroo
- purified 6.1 million litres of water at Bega
- provided over 77,262 meals on Defence bases to emergency
services personnel and evacuees and
- 5.4 million litres of water
- 73,300 litres of fuel and
- 1.3 million kilograms of fodder.
How many firefighters and volunteer
firefighters were involved?
There have been reports from government and fire services
agencies on the number of active firefighters involved at certain points in
time with a particular fire, but the number overall has fluctuated throughout
the 2019–20 Australian bushfires season.
On 31 January 2020 the NSW RFS reported in a tweet
that more than
1,600 firefighters were in the field. On 27 February 2020 AFAC
stated in a tweet that a cumulative
total of some 6,386 ‘interstate personnel’ had been deployed overall. The
parameters or methodology for calculating these figures were not provided.
On 28 February 2020 AFAC published a table that provides a
breakdown by state/territory of the combined
numbers of interstate and international personnel deployed to Queensland
(828), NSW (5,732), Victoria (429), ACT (360) and South Australia (12) during
the 2019–20 bushfires, with date ranges indicating the period of deployment
(note that ‘personnel’ includes roles other than firefighters, such as incident management and aviation personnel). With the inclusion
of 12 North American personnel posted to AFAC’s National Resource
Sharing Centre, the total deployed amounts to 7,373. AFAC states, ‘This bushfire season has seen Australia’s largest coordinated
interstate and international deployment of fire and emergency personnel by far’.
How many firefighters and volunteer
firefighters are there in Australia?
According to Table 9A.3 in Part D, Section 9 of the
Productivity Commission’s Report
on Government Services 2020 published on 29 January 2020, for the year
2018–19 there were 15,817 firefighters in Australia (this includes permanent
and part-time personnel, but excludes ‘support workforce’). For the same
period, there were in addition a total of 152,798 volunteer firefighters in
How many firefighting aircraft are
Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC) describes its fleet as follows:
The National Aerial Firefighting Fleet comprises
approximately 130 contracted aircraft. These aircraft, contracted by NAFC on
behalf of state and territory governments, are supplemented by additional state
owned, and state contracted aircraft and other aircraft hired to meet peak
demand across Australia. In total more than 500 aircraft, provided by over 150
operators, are available for firefighting across Australia.
Aircraft counts and locations vary from time
to time as the fleet balance is adjusted and individual airframes are updated
On 3 February 2020 AFAC stated that ‘more
than 500 aircraft are available for aerial firefighting including contracted
and “on call” aircraft. On busy days, over 250 aircraft are regularly in
On 20 February 2020 the
Queensland Government announced funding to secure long-term use in that
state of a 15,000 litre Large Air Tanker (LAT), citing difficulties with
sourcing on-call LAT services from other states last year due to the emergency
needs of those states.
What caused the 2019–20 Australian
Geoscience Australia states that lightning is the main natural cause of
bushfires, accounting for about half of all cases:
Bushfires can originate from both human
activity and natural causes with lightning the predominant natural source,
accounting for about half of all ignitions in Australia. Fires of human origin
currently account for the remainder and are classified as accidental or
states that the most common cause of bushfires is lightning and that fires
started by people are mostly accidental:
Bushfires are the result of a combination of
weather and vegetation (which acts as a fuel for the fire), together with a way
for the fire to begin – most commonly due to a lightning strike and sometimes
human-influences (mostly accidental such as the use of machinery which produces
a spark). Depending on weather conditions, embers can be transported by wind
from one location to another, causing new fires or spotting.
The NSW RFS reported that the
Gospers Mountain fire was started by lightning on 26 October 2019
and ‘burnt through more than 512,000 hectares across the Lithgow, Hawkesbury,
Hunter Valley, Cudgegong, Blue Mountains and Central Coast local government
On 3 February 2020 local media reported that the Kangaroo
Island fires had been started by lightning. According to the Victorian Country
Fire Authority (CFA) and the NSW RFS, the
majority of the 2019–20 fires in Victoria and NSW were caused by lightning.
However, it was reported in mid-January that the
main cause of the December 2019 fires in Tasmania was arson,
with a Tasmanian Fire Service spokesperson quoted as saying ‘Approximately
21,000 of the 35,000 hectares burnt is a result of deliberately lit fires’.
discarded cigarette was believed to be the accidental cause of the Binna Burra fire
in the Gold Coast hinterland in September 2019 and the Orroral Valley fire in the ACT in January 2020
was ‘likely caused by a landing light from an Army MRH-90 helicopter, while the
aircraft was on the ground’.
How do the 2019–20 Australian
bushfires compare with other major Australian bushfires?
The following major bushfire ‘events’ (as opposed to
seasonal fires) are significant due to the record number of deaths, longevity or
size. The CSIRO noted that, as at 18 February, with more than 10 million hectares of land burned, this
was already greater than the area burned in the Black Saturday 2009 and Ash
Wednesday 1983 bushfires combined.
Black Saturday, 2009
Black Saturday fires remain the deadliest bushfire event on record in
Australia’s history. The Victorian CFA website records:
- 173 people died (including two firefighters)
- 2,055 houses were destroyed and
- over 400,000 hectares of land were burned.
The Victorian Department
of Sustainability and Environment reported in 2012 that a total of 406,337
hectares of land was burned (p. 5) and the 2009
Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission stated 2,133 houses were destroyed
(p. 13). AFAC
has reported that 450,000 hectares of land were burned and 2,029 homes were
lost in the Black Saturday fires.
Museum of Australia notes that 120 people died in the Kinglake area alone
and that the RSPCA estimated that ‘up to one million wild and domesticated
animals died in the disaster’.
Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission found (p. 12):
Nine of the 15 fires the Commission examined were started as
a direct or indirect result of human activity; five were associated with the
failure of electricity assets, and the causes of four were thought to be
2003 Alpine/Canberra bushfires
The January 2003 bushfires in the Australian Alps affected
NSW, Victoria, and the ACT.
In October 2003 the House
of Representatives’ Select Committee into the recent Australian bushfires reported
(Appendix A, p. 327):
On January 8 2003, lightning strikes from a severe electrical
storm sparked 87 fires in the drought affected landscape of north-east Victoria
and 60 fires in southern New South Wales and the adjoining areas of the
Australian Capital Territory. Over the coming weeks, these fires spread
rapidly, behaving in ways not previously seen, eventually merging into one
continuous line spanning an area of 1.7 million hectares.
of Meteorology stated in its 2003 annual report that the ‘fire complex’
burned more than 1.1 million hectares in Victoria alone and was the third
largest recorded fire in south eastern Australia.
- 4 people died
- 164,000 hectares (or nearly 70 per cent) of land in the ACT were burned
- 90 per cent of Namadgi National Park was burned and
- over 500 homes were destroyed.
CFA states the North East and Gippsland fires burned for 71 days between
8 January and 19 March 2003, and cites the loss of:
- 41 houses
- 3 bridges
- 213 other structures
- 10,000 livestock and
- 1.2 million hectares of land.
Ash Wednesday, 1983
Until the Black Saturday fires, the Ash Wednesday fires on
16 February 1983 were the deadliest on record in Australia’s history. A total
of 75 people died, including 13 Victorian CFA
firefighters, one casual firefighter, and three
South Australian CFS firefighters.
Fire Management Victoria records:
- 47 people in Victoria and 28 people in South Australia died
- around 210,000 hectares in Victoria and 208,000 hectares in South
Australia were burned and
- 2,080 homes in Victoria and 383 homes in South Australia were destroyed.
Black Friday, 1939
Fires burning in Victoria in December 1938 merged on
13 January 1939 to form severe fires that came to be known as Black
from the 1939 Royal Commission into the bushfires stated (p. 5):
Seventy-one lives were lost. Sixty-nine mills were burned.
Millions of acres of fine forest, of almost incalculable value, were destroyed
or badly damaged. Townships were obliterated in a few minutes. Mills, houses, bridges,
tramways, machinery, were burned to the ground ; men, cattle, horses, sheep,
were devoured by the fires or asphyxiated by the scorching debilitated air.
Generally, the numerous fires which during December, in many parts of Victoria,
had been burning separately, as they do in any summer, either " under
control " as it is falsely and dangerously called, or entirely untended,
reached the climax of their intensity and joined forces in a devastating
confluence of flame on Friday, the 13th of January.
Fire Management Victoria records:
Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience’s disasters database records:
The fires claimed 36 lives in Victoria on Black Friday; the
total number of deaths across January was 71. Approximately 1300 buildings were
lost – more than 700 homes, 69 sawmills, many businesses, farms and other
See also Canadian
Interagency Forest Fire Centre Centre statement.
See also press
release on military support.
See also Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tweet
and BBC news article.
See also US Aid website.
For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to members of Parliament.
© Commonwealth of Australia
With the exception of the Commonwealth Coat of Arms, and to the extent that copyright subsists in a third party, this publication, its logo and front page design are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence.
In essence, you are free to copy and communicate this work in its current form for all non-commercial purposes, as long as you attribute the work to the author and abide by the other licence terms. The work cannot be adapted or modified in any way. Content from this publication should be attributed in the following way: Author(s), Title of publication, Series Name and No, Publisher, Date.
To the extent that copyright subsists in third party quotes it remains with the original owner and permission may be required to reuse the material.
Inquiries regarding the licence and any use of the publication are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This work has been prepared to support the work of the Australian Parliament using information available at the time of production. The views expressed do not reflect an official position of the Parliamentary Library, nor do they constitute professional legal opinion.
Any concerns or complaints should be directed to the Parliamentary Librarian. Parliamentary Library staff are available to discuss the contents of publications with Senators and Members and their staff. To access this service, clients may contact the author or the Library‘s Central Entry Point for referral.