Lehigh University has 22 students studying abroad in Australia during the spring semester of 2020. The bush fires in Australia have been negatively impacting study abroad students since the fall. (Courtesy of Ellie Otton)

Australian wildfires impact Lehigh study abroad students


The smoke from the Australian wildfires have been blocking the skyline views and making it difficult to spend extended time outdoors. The fires are impacting abroad Lehigh students’ everyday lives. (Courtesy of Ellie Otton)

Ellie Otton, ’21, recalled waking up one morning to what she thought was the smell of burning toast. However, when she arrived in the kitchen, she realized that someone had merely left the window open.

Otton was finishing up her abroad session in Sydney, Australia this past fall when the wildfires began. Her apartment complex asked the residents not to exercise outside and to keep their windows closed at all times. 

“One time, we landed from a trip and the pilot even said, ‘you guys won’t be able to see the skyline once we get down low because the smoke is really bad,’” Otton said. 

Otton said she was concerned about the health hazards associated with the wildfires. She recalls hearing a fact that said, “a whole day of breathing the air is like smoking a pack of cigarettes.”

She recalled a “scary” flight from Sydney to Brisbane, where she said she was able to see red fire and black smoke from the window of the plane.  

Two months later, the fires continue to burn.

With 22 Lehigh students studying abroad in Australia for the spring 2020 semester, these students are already experiencing the impact of the fires firsthand.  

But students who were there last semester only saw the beginnings of the fires.

Francesca Knudsen, ’21, is currently studying this semester at the University of South Wales in Australia.

“It was hard to enjoy my first few days here and (the fires) made it harder to adjust because I was scared of it being like this the whole time, but it has cleared up,” she said. 

May Naish, ’21 is also abroad in Australia and said the fires have impacted everyday life.

She said there’s an app that informs people how hazardous the air is, and some days people would walk around in masks or completely avoid going outside. 

“When it rains, there’s a ton of smoke that blows all throughout Australia,” Naish said. “So some days are smokey, and I can feel it in my lungs or in the air.”

Naish said she was surprised that Australians were not talking about the fires as much as she expected. She said sometimes stores will ask if she wants to make a donation towards fighting the fires.  

Knudsen said donating to the Red Cross or Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie made her feel better because she feels as though she is helping a cause. She said reading articles and doing research on the fires helps her feel safer and more informed.

Katie Welsh Radande, director of the Study Abroad Office, said the office is in constant communication with their partners overseas regarding health and safety issues.

“As of now, the location of our students in Australia does not put them in harm’s way,” Welsh Radande said. “We are continuing to monitor the situation in Australia and will keep communication open with students and families.” 

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