The Real Stories Behind Those Viral Australian Bush Fire Photos


As Australian bushfires decimate the country—so far killing 24 people and more than a billion animals—photographers continue to risk their lives in the name of environmental journalism. You've seen their heart-wrenching shots circulating on social media: badly burned koalas; anxious wallabies; fiery skies; high-jumping flames; and devastated Aussies left homeless. The apocalyptic imagery was described by a Sydney Morning Herald writer as “distinctly eerie," like a scene from the movie Blade Runner 2049 “come to life.” But without a serious global response to climate change, this is the future humanity is writing for itself. We spoke with five photojournalists battling flames and ash and fire tornados on the ground to get the perfect shot—and alert the world to the ongoing crisis Down Under.

Michaela Skovranova, National Geographic

"Volunteers from the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital have been working alongside National Parks and Wildlife Service crews rescuing koalas who have been affected by the devastating bushfires across New South Wales and Queensland. Koalas rescued from fire grounds are brought back to the hospital for treatment and often require additional home care. Barbara Barrett or Barb has she is known, has been looking after a beautiful young male named Baz. Baz requires regular bandage changes as his bushfire wounds slowly heal. He is expected to make a full recovery however it is uncertain if he will be able to be released. Koalas rely on specialized gut microbes to break down the specific eucalyptus species that are found in their home area. Young koalas pick up these microbes from their mothers by eating a specialized type of feces called pap. With such devastating habitat loss, it's hard to know what will be left for the koalas to feed on. I believe this image resonated because it's full of selfless love. The way that Barb held Baz and the way she looks after his wounds, you can feel that Baz trusts her and feels comfortable in this foreign environment. For me, this is the beautiful side of humanity and a wonderful showcase of how Australians have come together to help each other and the environment. It was a very emotional moment for me after seeing the absolute devastation caused by the fires in the Northern NSW late last year. For me, it's important to document and share gentle stories amongst the heartbreak."

Kate Geraghty, Sydney Morning Herald Staff Photographer

"This image taken on January 1 is of two residents in Nelligen, NSW, embracing in the street the morning after their town was hit by the Clyde Mountain Fire. Several properties were lost. To me it summed up the momentary relief of surviving this fire as the town came under threat again several days later. It also shows the typical Australian country community where everyone knows everyone and they look out for each other. It was a fleeting moment taken on the way to a property on the outskirts of town by a couple who lost their home. We have seen these scenes play out all over our country in the past two months as communities brace for more to come."

"After four days covering the fires on the South Coast we made our way inland through vast areas of burnt out bush land and national parks to cover the fires that had hit small towns south of the Kangaroo Valley (south of Sydney). We stopped to talk to a water tank supply man named Damian Campbell-Davys, who was supplying water to fire trucks, about the conditions of the road up ahead and any new info on the fire front of the Currowan Fire and Morton Fire. It was late in the afternoon and while talking with him, he told us how he had rescued a juvenile koala and pointed to the truck cabin where we saw this gorgeous unharmed but heavily dehydrated koala. The koala had crawled out of pine trees to sit amongst the ferns and drank water for approximately an hour and a half from Damian. While in the truck cabin, 'Tinny Arse,' Australian slang for lucky, as the koala was named would walk and allow me to pat it. Tinny Arse was very inquisitive, reaching out and leaning on me. Damian told us how it 'brings a ray of sunshine after a nightmare.'"

"On New Year’s Day, leading up to another series of catastrophic bushfire days, myself and Sidney Morning Herald journalist Peter Hannam were sent to monitor and cover the Clyde Mountain Fire that grew from the Currowan Fire and is still to this day burning out of control. We have training which allows us access through roadblocks and entry to fire grounds with fire and rescue crews to report immediately from the fire fronts. This fire has been burning for weeks. Every day and night, fire crews have been fighting and monitoring different fire fronts that appear from this fire. It continues to burn, so this scene shown in the photo is what is happening all across the fire ground. Fire crews and locals continue to carry out property protection. These crews worked through the night to have a couple hours rest before returning home to their area to prepare for catastrophic conditions the following day. I hope, in this image, you see the bravery of our firefighters and their selfless dedication to protecting us. I also hope it is a reminder of how volatile and dangerous these fires are and to heed the warnings to evacuate and or have a proper fire plan."

Tracey Nearmy, Freelance Visual Journalist

"Reuters had me on assignment at the ATP tennis tournament, but pulled me off of it to follow the developing bushfire crisis in Australia. The fire season here has been getting progressively longer, and this season fires have affected communities with it's ferocity. The scale and magnitude of the crisis is overwhelming and covering it requires strategy and planning as many of the remoter communities have lost power. They've run out of food and clean drinking water, too. This image was captured in the devastated town of Cobargo, where the New Year's Eve fire was described by a local as a "fire tornado." When I pulled up a driveway, donkeys, horses, and cows rushed over to the fence to me, momentarily distracted. I can tell they seem anxious and after the fire storm they've been through, I don't blame them. It grew so dark in the smoke haze, that I used my car lights to help light them as I spoke to them gently and photographed their wide eyes in the gloom."

Jessica Hromas, The Guardian Photo Editor

"I found this wallaby by the side of the road in burnt out country just outside of the small town of Kangaroo Valley, NSW. The devastation to animals and their habitat is just heartbreaking. I had a box in the car, so I filled it with water and left it there for the wallaby. Hopefully, it helped if only for day. I want people to wake up to the effects of climate change. These fire are unprecedented. I hear firefighters and scientist say it over and over again, here. Yes, bushfire have always been part of the countries environment—but never like this. This is climate change, period. This is what it looks like."

"This images was taken in Killabakh, NSW. I've seen a lot of Australia, but this area, when it's not ravaged by drought and fire, would be considered the most idyllic in the whole country. It has rolling green hills, high timber, and small dirt roads that wind through valleys filled with pretty little streams. Now, all the streams are all dry and the country is on fire. The people are stressed and tried. We met this fire, which was coming up a steep gully, when helicopter was dropping water bombs on it. I felt so sad for the land and all the platypuses that should be frolicking in the streams. The animals and the bush are dead. I want people to know what is happening to the environment here."

"This is a house on Railway Parade, Wingello, NSW, the morning after the fire ripped through on January 5. I felt almost awkward taking these photos, like I was shining a light on someone else's misery and demise, but I also thought to myself, 'it is important for people to know what is happening, and that many people are suffering.' This picture shows: Look here, this is what is left of someone's precious home."

"This photo was taken at the emergency staging ground at the Nowra Rugby Club, when the southerly winds hit. In moment, the sky turned from day to night and the winds came through like a fright train. Everything around us was red and angry. That night, the Currowan Fire jumped Shoalhaven River sending the fire north, burning and destroying properties in Kangaroo Valley, Bundanoon and Wingello. It was a scary afternoon, and I wanted to capture the drama. I also had to think about where we might go next, a balance between getting good photos but also staying safe."

Cassie Trotter, Getty's Director of Editorial, Asia Pacific

"I’m rarely on the front lines in my role. I’m typically behind the scenes providing editorial direction, coordinating teams and photographers from the safety of my home or office. But as fires raged just on the outskirts of Sydney, and the smoke and haze created hazardous air conditions and poor visibility, the front lines felt so much closer. My appreciation for the fire crews, journalists and photojournalists on the ground reached a new level of understanding. I struggled to breathe comfortably from the ferry on my commute to the office, while others were putting their whole bodies in the line of fire. One of the most recognizable and photogenic landmarks in Australia is the Sydney Opera House. People know the iconic white sails and there is no shortage of pictures of it standing clean against a blue sky and surrounded by beautiful blue water in a city known for its temperate weather, fresh air and picturesque harbor. But for several days, the sails could hardly be seen, shrouded in smoke and hazardous air, highlighting the scale and size of the fires burning dozens of kilometers away. It’s important to capture images like these, ones people can relate to around the world if only to help illustrate the scope and scale of disasters like Australia is experiencing. Forests are being decimated, homes destroyed, lives lost. Covering the crisis is challenging. There is often over 100 fires burning simultaneously across new South Wales alone, posing different levels of threat to people and communities. Covering bushfires is dangerous and unpredictable and for safety reasons, editors look for qualified and experienced photojournalists to put in the field. There are not many, and the conditions are tough, so both editor and photographer need to balance the time photographers work in the field in extreme conditions to prevent exhaustion."

Lisa Maree Williams, Freelance Photographer

Lisa was unable to speak with for this story, because she is currently on assignment for Trotter with Getty. This is the caption that accompanies her stunning photograph, above: "An injured koala rests in a washing basket at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park in the Parndana region on January 8, 2020 on Kangaroo Island, Australia. The Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park positioned on the edge of the fire zone has been treating and housing close to 30 koala's a day. Bushfires continue to burn on the island, with firefighters pushing to contain the blaze before forecast strong winds and rising temperatures return."

Rose Minutaglio Staff Writer Rose is a Staff Writer at covering culture, news, and women's issues.

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