Fire has destroyed 8.4 million hectares of land in southern and eastern Australia, an area bigger than Scotland. And despite heroic efforts by thousands of firefighters and volunteers the relentless, unpredictable and fast-changing blazes have killed at least 26 people, more than a billion animals, and destroyed over 2,000 homes.
New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania have felt the force of the fires – which are an annual occurrence, but not on the scale seen this season. Smoke darkened skies as far away as New Zealand, while in Sydney authorities advised people to stay indoors to avoid breathing the tiny particles that can cause serious respiratory issues and other health problems.
But for the homeless population staying indoors with windows closed is not an option. Last year the numbers of rough sleepers in Sydney rose, and extreme heat was already a major problem even before this summer’s unprecedented temperatures and the complications of smoke from the fires.
"Due to the fires in NSW we have opened our home to friends because nearby fires have made their home unsafe. It has been great to have them stay and knowing that they are safe and well. I recommend others to open their homes and hearts to those in need too."
Vendor Ron, Adelaide pic.twitter.com/S884cpTJGO
— The Big Issue (@thebigissue) January 7, 2020
“Extreme heatwaves always disproportionately affect vulnerable and marginalised communities,” says Jenny Smith, chair of Homelessness Australia. “We are all encouraged to stay indoors during heatwaves to protect ourselves and our health, but for the more than 116,400 people currently experiencing homelessness every day in Australia, staying indoors isn’t always a possibility. On any given night, there are over 8,200 people sleeping rough throughout our country, and it is more difficult for this vulnerable population to avoid the harmful health impacts of summer heatwaves.”
The extreme heat and poor air quality led to a Code Red status for rough sleepers from the government in South Australia in late December, with human services minister Michelle Lensink saying homelessness agencies across Adelaide would extend daytime opening hours.
Bushfires in Victoria and poor air quality in Melbourne led to authorities providing relief measures for homeless people including free access to swimming pools and free cinema tickets, with councils offering cooling centres and directing homeless people towards libraries, shopping centres or community hubs. As Smith points out: “People without safe and secure housing during extreme hot weather are most at risk of dehydration, overheating or exacerbating other health problems. It’s vital that there are enough cool and sheltered spaces for people without homes to go to.”
Water supplies in NSW and Victoria have been hit, with some residents warned not to drink tap water due to contamination from bacteria or chemicals, as fires damage infrastructure and treatment plants. It is predicted the knock-on effects could last decades.
Extreme heatwaves always disproportionately affect vulnerable and marginalised communities
Last week temperatures in Penrith, near Sydney, were the highest anywhere on the planet, reaching 48.9°C, while Australia’s annual temperature in 2019 was the highest on record, 1.5°C above average, leading to extreme droughts, rivers drying up and animals dying on parched farmlands. And it also enabled the annual bushfires to escalate to unprecedented crisis levels.
In southern Australia hospitals and ambulance call-outs are being stretched with an increase in admissions for heart and breathing problems, which rose 30 per cent in December compared to the same period in 2018. Environmental experts have said that NSW and Queensland could face four months of poor air quality, with 10 million people affected. “We have never faced anything like this before,” says Arnagretta Hunter, cardiologist and member for Doctors for the Environment. “There are no easy options.”
Homeless people already have poorer health than the general population, and longer-term lack of investment in housing and provision for people affected by homelessness has compounded the problems already being faced this year, according to Smith: “As well as rough sleepers, people in overcrowded dwellings or poorly insulated housing are also at risk in extreme weather conditions. Many low-cost housing options such as rooming houses are not able to withstand extreme heat and instead can trap the heat in, posing serious health risks to residents.”
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
Sellers of The Big Issue in Australia say fewer visitors are around. Vendor Ron, who sells the magazine in Adelaide, has opened his doors to a family who lost their farm in a fire in NSW and are now homeless. “They’ve lost just about everything but at least they are alive, that’s the main thing,” he says. “They were on a 12-acre property, a little farm. I’m not sure if they’ve had to leave animals behind… They’re holding up OK – they are seeing a counsellor.”
Trevor, who has sold the magazine for 15 years, lives in NSW with his wife, who is also a vendor. “This is by far the worst bushfire season we’ve ever had. I’ve been on this earth 63 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says. “My sister lives in Omeo, about six hours away in Victoria, and they were surrounded by fire there as well.”
Trevor and his wife, Ellen, are “on tenterhooks”, poised to flee. “We listen to the radio, and look at the TV and internet for information, like the Rural Fire Service, that tells us what sort of area the fire’s in at the moment. We’re always at the ready in case we have to take off.”
As temperatures rose again after a brief dip last week, residents in Victoria were being primed for evacuation with a ‘heat spike’ and unpredictable winds causing fast-moving fire-fronts.
Sally Hines, chief operating officer at The Big Issue Australia, says the organisation knows all too well the impact extreme summer heat has on magazine sellers. “We work closely with our vendors to ensure they are taking care of themselves by remaining hydrated, staying cool and making use of available services to stay safe during these extreme weather conditions,” she says.
With special thanks to Amy Hetherington, editor of The Big Issue Australia