Australian Fires Spur Mining Magnate to Raise Funds to Combat Disaster

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(Bloomberg) -- Andrew Forrest made his money shipping huge amounts of Australian iron ore across the globe. Now he’s looking to bring some relief to his native country.

The founder of Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. was in New York recently to raise money in response to Australian bush fires that have killed at least 28 people, destroyed more than 2,600 homes and burned more than 12 million hectares (30 million acres), an area about the size of Pennsylvania.

His foundation contributed about $34 million to help convene a group of experts to develop a “national blueprint” for disaster resilience that can also be used in other fire-affected parts of the world. It’s seeking an additional $311 million or more from other donors.

The foundation also donated $14 million to help those affected by the fires and support volunteer recruitment efforts.

Australian Fires Spur Mining Magnate to Raise Funds to Combat Disaster

Forrest, 58, amassed a $9.3 billion fortune through mining and other investments, making him the third-richest Australian, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. In recent years, he focused on philanthropy, with initiatives in areas as diverse as modern slavery, plastic pollution and helping indigenous communities.

Bloomberg spoke with Forrest about his fundraising efforts. His comments have been edited and condensed.

You were in some affected communities. What was that like?

The flame walls when they appear are terrifying. They’re like red plasma. The fires are so hot, they denude all life from the topsoil. The fire didn’t just incinerate the trees, it incinerated the tree roots. The topsoil is now sand. And that has a very long-term environmental impact, for big things like the ecology of the forest, down to the small things like rare, endemic platypus populations.

You’re looking at long-term wildlife impacts which will take decades to recover, if ever. That’s one of the great tragedies.

What are your hopes for the resiliency plan?

Australia is part of a slowly but surely warming planet, and that is changing the ecology markedly. We want to create a blueprint for Australia to proof itself from devastating bush fires. And that plan will be applicable to California, Arizona, Colarado, where you’ve had some really savage fires, and also for Brazil. Every massive fire sucks life out of the planet and pumps carbon into it.

Is it fair to criticize Australians’ response compared with that of the French to Notre Dame?

That’s a hard and very personal call. There was a huge amount of emotion around Notre Dame, there was something you could see that you could rebuild. We don’t have that with the Australian fires. It’s an indefinable disaster at this point, and it’s still unfolding.

We took a very long time to think through what our response would be and we limited it to $48 million because we really want the community to come with us. And we’ve had Americans and Canadians and Australians contributing to the fire fund since we started it.

Do Australia’s firefighting services need to be professionalized?

We do have professional firefighters, but I think we probably rely a little heavily on volunteers. I’m not going to criticize my own country, but we could definitely do with more investment in that sector.

How is Fortescue reducing emissions?

We’ve taken a big step by not investing in coal. We could have had a much larger Fortescue Metals Group if we did that. We have refused to take those opportunities.

We’ve been converting all our power stations from diesel to solar and gas, removing half-a-billion liters of diesel use annually. And we are working furiously on developing hydrogen as a source of power.

What are you doing with hydrogen?

We are testing hydrogen across a number of our sites. We have the technology to transform hydrogen into ammonia and back again, which means that you can transport it anywhere. And we’re searching for novel ways to produce green hydrogen. It’s uneconomic currently, but so was Fortescue when I started it. And we worked out how to make it economic and created a large company. I’m looking at hydrogen thinking the same thing.

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