In the midst of late December 2019 and early January 2020 fires raging across the Australian continent, the following screenshot showing exhausted, soot-blackened firefighters circulated on Facebook:
The photograph, which was apparently captured from a deleted or friends-locked Facebook post, was captioned:
I did not take this photo and don’t know who did, but it needs to be shared. God bless our firefighters. This is my community and these are our heroes [heart]
The image was copied or saved and shared by individuals often without additional comment; many readers inferred that the photograph showed events in Australia.
As of January 2020, bush fires in Australia had been raging for months — a catastrophic consequence of climate change. Fires first began burning in September 2019, and an estimated 200 new fires appeared on December 30 2019.
The next day, The Guardian reported on localized fires:
• Up to sixteen fires burned simultaneously at emergency level across Australia on [December 31 2019], eight in Victoria and eight in New South Wales, with the entire East Gippsland region under an emergency alert.
• Two men – a father and son – were confirmed dead in the NSW town of Cobargo.
• A third man, believed to be elderly, was still unaccounted for in Belowra, west of Narooma. Police said “unfortunately we think the news in that house will not be good either”.
• One firefighter died on [December 30 2019 in the] evening, and others were injured, in a “freakish weather event” near Albury, described as a “fire tornado” that overturned a 10-tonne truck on flat ground.
Although the deadly, unprecedented fires burning in Australia were real (as is the image), the caption was misleading. That image first appeared in 2017, and it was shared to Imgur in December that year:
The image appears to have originated with Facebook user Michele Newell:
In a December 18 2017 post, Newell wrote:
My last Thomas Fire fireman post – He’s “completed” ???????? A little over two weeks ago Dylan texted me that Ventura had a 100-acre fire. That fire erupted into something that took the homes of many friends and displaced hundreds of families. It’s been heart-wrenching. But this young man on the top left (who had the flu at the time) gave his all. He and Tehachapi Valley Crew 11 spent their last day cutting break above Westmont College baseball fields where Dylan played ball fall of 2015. Life is funny that way. Two years ago this month we mourned the loss of a college baseball career due to injury and today we celebrate the efforts of he and this crew to secure the future of that same school. In case you doubt it – God certainly had a plan. #Westmontnews Photo cred: Edgar Sanchez #KCFD #TVFC #CREW11 Kern County Firefighters, IAFF Local 1301
The fires burning in Australia are all too real, and this photograph was not doctored — but it did not show firefighters in Australia, and it was not captured in 2019. This photo was actually taken in December 2017 during California’s Thomas Fire — which was at that point the largest in the state’s history.