Australians in UAE fear for family and friends as fires rage

The bushfires have killed an estimated half a billion animals and claimed at least 23 lives

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Australians living in the UAE have spoken about their fears for family and friends back home as bushfires continue to ravage the country.

Around half a billion animals and at least 23 people have died as a result of the bushfires, which are so hot they have created their own weather systems, including dry lightning storms and fire tornadoes.

The spread of the fires is being fueled by strong winds and record temperatures.

Temperatures climbed to 43.6°C in Canberra, the capital, and 48.9°C in Penrith in Sydney, smashing temperature records which have been in place for 80 years.

Every time I think it's bad, something happens and I realise it's worse

It is feared the fires, which are so bad in one part of New South Wales that thousands of people were forced to take refuge on a beach as the skies turned orange, will wipe out many species.

The Australian Koala Foundation now consider koalas in New South Wales to be functionally extinct – meaning their numbers have declined to a point that they can no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem.

Australians living in the UAE are encouraging people living here to do what they can to support organisations fighting the fires, including voluntary groups like the South Australian Country Fire Service and the NSW Rural Fire Service.

A view of Clarah Brooks' brother in law's house as it was engulfed by flames from a bushfire in southern Australia. Courtesy Clarah Brooks

“That’s who is fighting these fires, because there aren’t enough metropolitan firefighters to do it,” said Clarah Brooks, an Australian living in Abu Dhabi.

“My brother in law’s life was saved by the country fire service. He was trapped in his house. We were on the phone to him. It was so loud,” she said.

“He got trapped in his house the day before he flew out here for Christmas. He has seen some really scary stuff ... he was in serious shock when he arrived. He was really not in a good place.”

She said most volunteer firefighters tackling the blazes only are only issued one outfit, and many are wearing masks that do not properly protect them from smoke inhalation. Some have even been reduced to using wet cloths to protect themselves.

Jo Bates, a fellow Australian living in Abu Dhabi, whose father captained a brigade for a decade, said many of the volunteer firefighters will be without pay while they tackle the blazes, although the New South Wales government recently introduced a compensation scheme for loss of their earnings.

“They will be out there day after day, night after night with no breaks,” she said.

Ms Bates said Australians living in the UAE are devastated to see what is happening back home and want to help in any way they can.

“Some people in Dubai are looking to put on some kind of benefit event later in January,” she said.

“It’s so awful to think about the knock on effect of the people who have lost everything. And the animals we have lost. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Daniel O’Meara, who took over as captain of the rural fire service brigade from Ms Bates' father, said it was difficult to comprehend the scale of the devastation.

"You see people who have lost their houses or parts of their property or machinery on their property," said Mr O'Meara, who works in Newcastle in NSW.

"Up north when we were up there you see farms where four generations of a family have tuned their breeding stock and it's all been lost.

"You also see kangaroos which have been caught up in fences trying to get away from fires and you see koalas that have been burned."

Jane Brister, the founder and director of Adelaide Koala Rescue, told The National many volunteering for the charity will need counselling as what they have witnessed has been so harrowing.

“We’ve seen a huge amount of dead koalas out there and we have had to euthanise a lot. But we have certainly saved far more than we have had to euthanise,” she said.

They are finding many koalas with burned paws as they escaped the fires by climbing as high as they could.

“At some point they have had to come down and have burnt their paws. So it’s the burns on their paw pads that has been the problem.

“Every time I think it’s bad, something happens and I realise it’s worse. Yesterday, I was out rescuing koalas in an area I haven’t seen since the bushfires. I was shocked. It’s obliterated. There’s nothing.”