Australian-born Yukon conservationist reflects on devastating fires at home

“It’s just a whole new level of insane destruction and impact,” said Chris Rider, the executive director of the Yukon Chapter of CPAWS.

As of Sunday, 23 people dead and 6 million hectares burned in ongoing Australian wildfire season

Firefighters tackle a bushfire near Batemans Bay in New South Wales on January 3, 2020. Australian-born Chris Rider, who today manages an environmental charity in Yukon, remembers taking vacations in Batemans Bay, one of the worst-hit parts of the country. (Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images)

Images of devastating wildfires tearing through Australia's countryside have been met with shock and dismay around the world.

But for Yukon's Chris Rider, these are images of home — of heavy smoke blackening the sky of his hometown, Canberra, and evacuees crowding a beach where his family spent their summers.

"I'm struggling to comprehend what's happening there," he told the host of CBC Yukon's Airplay.

Chris Rider, the executive director of the Yukon chapter of CPAWS, grew up in the Australian capital of Canberra, not far from the country's worst-affected areas. (Submitted by Chris Rider)

"This is worse than anything I've ever seen before. I think this is worse than anything that's ever happened before. It's just a whole new level of insane destruction and impact."

Rider is the executive director of the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). In that role, he is working to protect the Peel Watershed, an ecologically-rich network of waterways and mountain valleys in the territory's north.

Coincidentally, he points out, it's a similar size — more than six million hectares — to the land in Australia that is currently burning.

"It just puts into perspective just how much damage these fires can have," he said.

"It makes you feel tiny."

Back in Australia, Rider remembers bush fires as part of the "natural cycle of burn and regeneration," he said. He even worked as a member of the rural bush fire brigade that kept fires in check through the hot summer months.

"This is something you train for," he said, "and I grew up with bush fires every year. ... But there was never anything like this."

The latest reports suggest the country's ongoing drought and high temperatures mean the fires may not substantially diminish until February.

As of Sunday, 23 people have died as a result of the fires, and tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes. More than eight million more were under an emergency order.

Rural Fire Service crews in New South Wales protect property as bushfires approached in December. Dozens of Canadian firefighters have flown to Australia to contribute to efforts to control the fires. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts via Reuters)

As of Saturday evening, in New South Wales, the worst-hit region, 3,600 firefighters were battling to contain the fires.

Reservists were called in for additional support "for the first time in ... history," according to Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, and dozens of Canadian firefighters have flown to join the fight.

The impact on the country's wildlife has been devastating. Sydney University ecologist Chris Dickman estimates 500 million birds, reptiles and mammals have been killed by the fires in New South Wales alone.

Rider said watching the fires in his home country has spurred him to reflect on his own work advocating for conservation.

"When it comes to protecting land, it almost makes it feel futile when a fire like this can just rip through it … and that area can be completely destroyed," he said.

At the same time, he said, the plants and animals that survive environmental crises need protected territory on which they can regenerate.

"It almost means we need to be doing it more and more and more."

As Rider spoke to CBC, he was receiving text messages from family and friends back home, updating him on the bleak days ahead.

"It's 45 degrees today, so everyone's on high alert right now," he said.

"It's going to be a different place once these fires are through."


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Chris Rider's last name as Ryder.
    Jan 06, 2020 1:09 PM CT

Written by John Last, based on an interview by Dave White, with files from Nicole Mortillaro