Dr Barry Traill is not only one of Australia’s most respected environmental campaigners and a philanthropist through his family’s Tracker Foundation.
He is also a volunteer firefighter who spent parts of the Black Summer fighting bushfires in Queensland and New South Wales. We spoke to Barry about his experience of the bushfires and how it has influenced his philanthropy and environmental campaigning.
How did the bushfires impact you?
My home country in East Gippsland was almost completely burnt by the fires. I also had a long, fire season in my voluntary brigade. I found it very difficult – as it was for millions of other Australians. Seeing so much destroyed and so many people’s lives under threat and shattered, re-invigorated me to work on climate change. Because the root cause of these fires was global warming.
As a philanthropist, how have you responded to the bushfires?
We’re maintaining our current funding levels at the maximum amount we can afford. The bushfires haven’t changed my philanthropy, although it has increased my personal focus on climate change. Although I knew all about climate change as a scientist and conservationist, the fires were so horrific that they sharpened my focus to work more directly myself personally on climate change advocacy.
How long have you been a volunteer fire fighter?
I’ve been in a rural voluntary brigade in Queensland for five years. I joined because I assumed that fires were going to increase due to warming, and the Fire Service would need more people fighting them. Being able to do something active and positive is great. I think I would have found the fire season even more difficult if I wasn’t in a fire brigade – it helped me a lot to actually be doing something directly. When you’re fighting fires, you’re at the pointy end of global warming. You meet lots of different people, you see how climate change is affecting them and you see how they’re going.
When you’re fighting fires, you’re at the pointy end of global warming. You meet lots of different people, you see how climate change is affecting them and you see how they’re going.
Dr Barry Traill
What was different about these fires?
The fires last summer really brought global warming home. They were by far the worst ever in Australia by a huge margin. Queensland doesn’t have a history of severe fires by the standards of New South Wales and Victoria, but that’s really changed in the last few years. We’re now having repeated catastrophic fire conditions. That’s just simply a weather related index, nothing to do with fuel loads. So last summer, for my brigade, we had more fires, many more severe. Compared with previous seasons I’ve had, we spent so much more time directly saving houses. It was such a long fire season in Queensland – our brigade was on and off fires from August through to Christmas Eve. And then thankfully the delayed summer rains came in Queensland in early January breaking our drought, so along with many other Queensland firefighters, I went down to New South Wales.
What was your experience in New South Wales?
We went to southern New South Wales for a five day deployment. In the village where we were deployed on the first day the forecast was for severe winds and a likely ember attack that night which would threaten everything. In Queensland, we would have assumed we’d fight for every house in the district. But by the time we got to New South Wales, it had been burning for two months and you could see the exhaustion of locals and New South Wales fire crews, and the limited resources because of the multiple mega fires still running. So there was a hard setting of priorities that resulted. We were told to focus on defending the store and the school, and the fire brigade shed in the centre of the village. I asked what would happen if any residents had not evacuated their houses as they’d been told. The fire boss briefing us quietly said: ‘any residents left have to look after themselves, they’ve been told to evacuate, your priority is the centre of the town.’ That’s what it had come down to by the second month when push came to shove on difficult days. And there was no firefighting focus where we were on protecting anything environmentally during our week. There just weren’t the resources. We were lucky because the ember attack that had been predicted didn’t happen, so we didn’t lose anything while we were there. But the brutal triage being employed on what to save was very confronting.
Then a tree came down on our fire truck on the last day of our posting. I was standing next to the truck and ran out on the way but there was a firefighter trapped in the cabin who just had to hunker down when he heard me yell out it was coming down. Fortunately the main trunk just skimmed the front of the truck so he wasn’t crushed. But it was a big tree and it was very close.
I also found seeing the drought in southern New South Wales traumatic. The drought that came before the fires has often been overlooked because of the tragedy of the fires themselves. But while I was in New South Wales I would often look at a ridge line and think – ‘oh I didn’t realise that side of the valley had been burnt,’ but then I’d look again, and realise that it hadn’t. It was drought affected trees with browned off canopies. After the tree incident a local volunteer talked with me to help me un-wind. I ended up crying with her about her story. Her agri-business had largely gone. Lots of her family and friends had lost their livelihoods. And then the exhaustion of firefighting for week after week. She was trying to keep it together for her work and her kids her husband. The drought was a slower hit, but its impacts were just as brutal for many families as the fires. That got forgotten once the fires started.
After that deployment I realised I had mild Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the summer. Partly the tree coming down on us, partly the tiredness after so many months, partly seeing and knowing what had been lost in the drought and fires, partly anger at Australian politics for not doing more.
As a volunteer firefighter and a philanthropist, do you think more philanthropic effort needs to go into fire services?
I don’t think people should donate to fire services. I think the government should pay for those services. And volunteers like us, we’re happy to serve. We just need more of most things- more people, more trucks, more planes and choppers. There was a fundamental shortage in New South Wales and Victoria – there weren’t enough trucks, planes, choppers, and volunteers that weren’t exhausted. As the ex-fire chiefs have said, there needs to be more focus on quick response: Professionals and volunteers in rapid strike teams, choppers. The Gospers fire – the biggest one in the Blue Mountains – it started with one lightning strike and they didn’t have the resources at the time to focus on it quickly. They were able to put out dozens of other lightning strikes that night it started but couldn’t get to that one. That’s about having enough resources on the bad days.
So in terms of philanthropy, I would suggest that it’s the government’s job, because these catastrophes are accelerating. Black Summer was the most extensive, but then there were the Victorian fires on Black Saturday ‘09 that killed far more people – several people I know died that day. And before then, ’03 and ’04. They’re just accelerating. The thing about this one was it was a series of many horrific fires all wrapped up in one long spring and summer. It’s the government’s job to provide the emergency services. So I wouldn’t encourage philanthropy to give to that, unless it’s in the midst of an emergency and you just want to help out on the ground for something very specific and local.
Where do you think philanthropy can help?
There are some key places where philanthropy can help. Specifically for helping in privately owned landscapes where there aren’t resources. For example in the Great Western Woodlands near Kalgoorlie, which is a global biodiversity hotspot. The Ngadju people got four million hectares back under full Indigenous ownership – they’re the largest landholder in southern Australia. And tragically, a million hectares was burned in the fires. It was barely in the news, but it was catastrophic environmentally. The Ngadju people have just now managed to get the resources for one fire truck! They need far more resources to manage their property. They should have a helicopter on standby, to get out quickly to fires. Ideally, they’d have the systems, the roster, the gear, the crew. Or consider the Warddeken rangers in Arnhem land – some of the very best land managers in Australia, with solid resources that they’ve established over years, and even they struggled with the fire season last year – because it’s getting hotter and drier.
Do you think there are any lessons for philanthropy from the response to the bushfires?
The fundraising at the time was quite haphazard. Whoever got out early seemed to raise enormous funds. I think the huge response showed that Australians deeply want to help people whose houses have burnt down and to directly help wildlife. But my take would be, in a disaster, don’t donate quickly. Wait until the dust settles, then work out who is doing a good job and where the gaps are. In terms of big systematic giving, wait and watch.
As environmental donors, I’d say think about donating to regions where there aren’t so many people. Areas where there are people understandably get a lot of the funding and attention, leaving out other huge areas which are left to burn without much attention. Also, think about systematic giving that will deal with the root causes of the problem. And that is fires getting out of control, and of course climate change.
The destruction of the Black Summer bushfires was unprecedented, killing well over a billion animals.
How do you approach the issue of climate change as a funder and a campaigner?
As a small donor, we haven’t directed our funding at climate change directly, we’ve stayed with projects with Invasive Species Council and a local habitat connectivity project Sunshine Coast Hinterland Bush Links. But it’s in my day to day work, and the work of those organisations does directly increase carbon sequestration. More bush means less carbon pollution in the air.
How does climate change impact your day to day work?
It’s the fundamental threat to the globe. It’s the issue of our lifetime. It will impact on us environmentally, socially and economically in every conceivable way unless we sort it. As it did last summer.
Climate change work is broad and needs to encompass a great array of approaches. Literally from planting a tree to ensuring the complete cessation of burning fossil fuels. A big current gap I see particularly is in engaging with conservative political leaders. We don’t have bipartisan acceptance of the issue, particularly from many federal conservative leaders. Simply whacking them and telling them they’re wrong hasn’t been a winning strategy so far.
One of the things I prioritised during the fires was helping to get Project Yellow off the ground – which is all about showing conservative leaders that their constituents want climate action. Project Yellow is a farmer-led campaign encouraging the community to show their support for climate action by painting something yellow, collected online under #showourcolours #canariesinthecoalmine
What are you hearing from your environmental grantees about the impact of the fires?
Feral horses are accelerating the damage because of the fires in Kosciusko and the Invasive Species Council is running an excellent campaign to get rid of them. That’s an example of the synergies that can happen. An invasive species issue that’s been made far worse by climate change because of the fires.
How do you think COVID-19 will affect giving?
COVID-19 can change some of the immediate priorities in giving, such as the need to focus on stopping bad things happening – such as the proposed gas-led recovery, and also streamlining environmental approvals. Or, more positively, to create a renewables-led recovery.
But I don’t think it changes the strategic priorities of work needed. There’s going to be so many twists and turns, there’ll likely be a vaccine, so that by the time you work out a strategic play that relates to the pandemic, we’ll likely be in a new space anyway. Just do what you do strategically, and change some of the tactics because people are at home more.
A lighter question now: Making the most of isolation, what’s your recommendation for best book or movie in isolation?
The library’s been closed so I’ve been hardly reading anything! So I guess I’d say… Finnish Noir TV escapism that has made me realise that:
- No one should move to Finland because the murder rate is out of control even though
- They appear to have excellent maverick female detectives who solve every crime.