For months now, Australia has been engulfed in flames. Bushfires currently cover portions of four of the country's six states—an area roughly the size of the entire country of Belgium. Since September, they've scorched millions of acres of land, destroyed thousands of homes, and forced residents and tourists to evacuate en masse (at times to their only available refuge: the water). They've produced enough smoke to make air quality in the capital of Canberra worse than any other major city in the world. They've claimed the lives of 18 people, and an estimated half billion animals. And apparently, they've just been getting started; the record-breaking fire season is only expected to get worse.
If all that's news to you, well, you're not alone. The lack of awareness about the disaster is astonishing—particularly given the scope of the destruction. Blame the normalization of natural disasters or the ever-changing news cycle, but until recently the public seemed largely unaware of the ongoing disaster, which is all the more striking given its scope. Even for a government that's no stranger to climate change denial, the degree to which top Australian politicians have downplayed the situation has come as something of a shock. Last month, deputy prime minister Michael McCormack wrote off environmentalists who connect the fires with climate change as "raving inner-city lunatics." Shortly thereafter, as thousands of firefighters battled the blaze, prime minister Scott Morrison jetted off to Hawaii for a little vacation. (Australians have since welcomed him home with a range of expletives and refusals to shake his hand.)
Then again, at least McCormack and Morrison have been acknowledging that the fires exist—something that public figures outside of Australia have failed to do for months. The silence of celebrities in particular stands in stark contrast with their repeated responses to recent (and much smaller scale) fires in California: calls to action and outpourings of support. Kim Kardashian, for one, has previously been vocal about fires in California. And yet, the tragedy in Australia apparently didn't register enough to keep her from posting a tone-deaf tweet in November, teasing that "something very special" was on its way to her Aussie fans. "Water or firefighters? We need that right now. Or money? Farmers and people who lost homes & loved ones need money too," one Twitter user responded. It turned out to be the release of her fragrance line in the country, eventually, of course, paired with her thoughts and prayers.
And yet, whether or not Kardashian is entirely to blame is up for debate. Even some of the world's most famous animal-loving Australians have yet to draw attention to the fires—among them Liam Hemsworth, who was notably vocal about the Woolsey Fire both before and after it destroyed his home in Malibu in 2018. (Along with Miley Cyrus, who shared the home, Hemsworth later donated half a million dollars to a group helping the community recover.)
But over the course of the past 24 hours, something changed. As 2019 gave way to 2020, the Australian skies turned such an alarming hue of blood red that photos of the destruction finally began to circulate—particularly among celebrities and politicians. For the first time since the fragrance fiasco, Kardashian returned to the subject of the fires, apparently of her own accord. One of her three posts—a retweet of a video posted by Bernie Sanders—was then reposted by her sister Kendall Jenner, who had yet to broach the topic. The fact that Sanders posted about the fires was news in and of itself, too; he was one of several prominent American politicians, including Hillary Clinton, to break their silence on the fires in recent days.
Meanwhile, on Instagram, Leonardo DiCaprio tackled the topic of the fires for the third time since mid-November. He was one of the first public figures to do so, as was Russell Crowe, who had parts of his property in New South Wales damaged in the flames. (Greta Thunberg weighed in for the first time on social media in late December.)
Over the course of Friday morning, voices ranging from Debi Mazar to Jordan Kale Barrett chimed in, at times sharing links for those looking to help. Before long, noted Aussies Hugh Jackman and Naomi Watts had followed suit.
There have been other signs of progress, too—like the fact that the hashtag "#AustraliaBurning" started trending on Twitter last night, with 15,000 tweets. Of course, there's still room for improvement; here's hoping future hashtags won't be drowned out by "#JamesCharlesIsOverParty," to the tune of 61,300 tweets.