Australia now has millions in bushfire donations - but what can it do with it?

The economic damage from the fires could be as much as $3.5 billion (£1.9b)

Isabella Kwai
Sydney
Sunday 19 January 2020 17:53
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Rescuers search for animals on Kangaroo Island amid wildfire devestation

For the rural firefighters of Australia, no donation is too small. They have long been known to canvass for dollars and cents in town markets, and their collection tins are fondly displayed in local storefronts.

That hat-in-hand approach can now be put on hold. As bush fires have ravaged Australia, celebrities, business moguls and horrified people around the world have inundated the country’s fire services and other nonprofit organisations with tens of millions of dollars in donations.

This outpouring has presented new challenges for a country more accustomed to handing out largesse to needier nations than to being the recipient of it.

Suddenly, Australia has found itself trying to efficiently distribute huge sums of money and to decipher donors’ sometimes vague intentions.

One after another, celebrities have announced large donations or money-collection efforts. A Facebook fundraiser for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service that was started by Australian comedian Celeste Barber has amassed $34 million (£18m).

Fire brigades have received money from Nicole Kidman and her husband, Keith Urban, as well as from Metallica and Kylie Jenner. Leonardo DiCaprio donated to wildlife organisations. Writers are auctioning off signed books, musicians are hosting concerts, and athletes like Serena Williams have pledged to direct their winnings to bush-fire relief.

Since September, the fires have incinerated an area about the size of West Virginia, the United States' state, and at least 25 people have died. Ecologists have estimated that a billion animals have perished, with some species threatened to the point of extinction. At least 3,000 homes have been ravaged in dozens of towns, and the economic damage from the fires could be as much as $3.5 billion (£1.9bn)

People select donated goods at an unofficial evacuation centre in Cobargo New South Wales January 12 2020 (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service has seen a dramatic jump in giving.

In the period between mid-2017 and mid-2018, the fire service raised $525,000 (£277,000). Now, it is flush with the tens of millions of dollars it has received from the Facebook fundraiser and other sources.

The donations received so far could be enough to fund state-supported fire services in New South Wales for decades. But that would not provide immediate disaster relief.

“This money comes with expectations,” said Michael Eburn, an associate professor at the Australian National University who specialises in emergency management law. “It’s a dilemma.”

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