Australia's bushfires impact a 60 Minutes team

Journalists at 60 Minutes are accustomed to covering news around the world, but a recent report hit close to home for one team.

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A native Australian who has relocated to New York City, Jacqueline Williams had seen reports of bushfires in her home country late last year. The news initially did not surprise the 60 Minutes associate producer; blazes in Australia's eucalyptus forests are a regular summertime occurrence. But a phone call from her father made her realize—this time was different. 

  Williams' father told her that reports indicated the fires were coming toward his home in Rosedale, a beachside community in New South Wales. He would stay there, he told her, and try to defend his house. 

Within hours of that call, Williams was looking at images of the fires on social media when she saw cellphone video from Rosedale. Filmed from the water looking back at land, the camera panned left across a coastline orange with flames. The video stopped just before reaching where her dad's home stood. 

"Is my dad there? Is he okay?" she wondered. "And what has happened to Dad's house?"

Because phone lines were down, Williams initially could not reach her father. When she finally did, she was relieved to hear that he was safe and his home had escaped damage by mere yards. Many of his neighbors were not so lucky; the fire destroyed some 80 homes in his town.

As reports flowed in, Williams realized her father's town was one of countless communities affected by fires that were of a scale unprecedented in Australia. 

This season's bushfires in Australia have burned a reported 27 million acres and killed more than 30 people. 

'It was devastating for the people who live there and obviously very hard to see from the other side of the world," she said. "And that's when I realized, this is something that I think we need to cover."

A fellow Australian and CBS News colleague, correspondent Holly Williams came to the same realization in December. (Though the two share a nationality and a last name, they are not related.)

Holly Williams was in Sydney for Christmas when she noticed a layer of smoke permeating the city. It was unusual sight.

"I took my kids out for a walk in the middle of the city, and we went home almost immediately because our eyes were stinging and we were worried what it was going to do to them," she said. "That's not normal."

Above, 60 Minutes associate producer Jacqueline Williams. Below, 60 Minutes contributor Holly Williams.

This week the Williams women teamed up with 60 Minutes producer Draggan Mihailovich to report on the fires, which have burned a reported 27 million acres and killed more than 30 people. According to one estimate, the fires have also killed a billion animals. 

Scientists the 60 Minutes team spoke to say the scale of destruction was caused, in part, by climate change, which is transforming Australia's environment. According to climate scientist Joelle Gergis, 2019 was the hottest and driest year in Australia's history. That combination of heat and drought, she said, exacerbates the country's bushfire season. 

Jacqueline Williams had been reporting on climate change when she received the phone call from her father in December. She and Mihailovich were in the middle of finishing a 60 Minutes report on the role climate change played in Venice last November, when the city experienced its worst flood in 53 years. As she paused work to watch videos of the Australian fires on social media, she was surprised the parallels. 

Holly Williams had also reported on the flooding in Venice. As a CBS News foreign correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey, she covers news across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East—and now this week, her home country. 

"I think as a reporter, you often have an emotional response to something, whether it's your country or someone else's country," she said. "But it certainly was pretty powerful experience, I think, seeing what had happened in Australia." 

The video above was produced by Brit McCandless Farmer and Will Croxton. It was edited by Will Croxton. 

Video courtesy of RFS, Madeleine Kelly/Storyful and @AlexCoppel