Central and North Burnett Times - - WEEKEND - WORDS: AM­BER MACPHER­SON

Our na­tion is pick­ing up the pieces af­ter one of its worst nat­u­ral dis­as­ters in mod­ern his­tory. The bush­fire cri­sis be­gan in spring and burned more than 10 mil­lion hectares of land across six states, an area larger than South Korea or Por­tu­gal.

28 peo­ple died, in­clud­ing a num­ber of vol­un­teer fire­fight­ers, and ecol­o­gists from the Univer­sity of Syd­ney es­ti­mate more than 1 bil­lion an­i­mals have per­ished.

The na­tional pop­u­la­tion of koalas suf­fered enor­mously. It’s likely one-third of New South Wales koalas, or more than 8000, died as a re­sult of the fires.

For wildlife res­cuers and vet­eri­nar­i­ans, it was the heart­break­ing wake-up call needed to spot­light the plight of the Aussie icon.

Singed fur and scorched paws have be­come sym­bolic of a species pushed to the brink. Al­ready fac­ing ram­pant chlamy­dia in­fec­tion rates, dog at­tacks, habi­tat de­struc­tion and road trauma, drought and bush­fires are the re­sult of an ever-chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment that is be­com­ing less and less for­giv­ing to unique groups of an­i­mals like koalas.

While bush­fires are a typ­i­cal event in Aus­tralian sum­mers, our coun­try ex­pe­ri­enced its hottest and dri­est year on record last year, re­sult­ing in an ex­tremely long bush­fire sea­son.

Koalas have been dis­pro­por­tion­ately im­pacted by bush­fires be­cause, un­like kan­ga­roos, birds or snakes, they do not flee from fires. They scale the canopies of trees and wait for the danger to pass. Some­times they will over­heat and fall to the blazes be­low, or will sur­vive the fire front but scold their paws and bel­lies on the crawl down.

Koalas are also ter­ri­to­rial and will al­ways try to re­turn to their home patch where they be­lieve their food source re­mains. This makes it par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult to re­lease koalas back into the wild as fires have rav­aged the es­pe­cially flammable eu­ca­lyp­tus trees, their only food source.

Lis­more koala res­cue cen­tre Friends of the Koala has eu­thanised three-quar­ters of the koalas that pre­sented to the cen­tre since the bush­fire sea­son be­gan.

“We took in about 20 (koalas) as a re­sult of fires, some go­ing back to Septem­ber,” Dr Roslyn Ir­win says.

“What’s hap­pened with them is we have re­leased five. All the rest were eu­thanised. They were too com­pro­mised be­cause they were too in­jured to re­ha­bil­i­tate.

“Nor­mally in a year we would take in 400 (koalas), about half the koalas in New South Wales that need help, in a year.

“That’s the way it’s been for quite a while. The fires plus the drought, they’ve re­ally pushed (Friends of the Koalas) to where we’ve never been be­fore.”

Cur­rumbin Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary is home to one of the world’s busiest wildlife hospi­tals. Cur­rumbin Wildlife Hospi­tal di­rec­tor Whit­ney Luzzo-Kelly says the fa­cil­ity treated more than 12,000 na­tive an­i­mals last year, in­clud­ing hun­dreds of koalas.

“In 2008 we saw 27 koalas. In 2019 we saw nearly 600,” she says.

“Drought’s been af­fect­ing wildlife for about 12 months and an­i­mals are re­ally start­ing to fall vic­tim.

“We’re see­ing more de­hy­drated, mal­nour­ished chal­lenges than we’ve never seen be­fore. This is the com­bi­na­tion of the un­per­fect storm, the com­bi­na­tion of wildfire and drought.”

A catas­tro­phe of this scale has seen gen­eros­ity and com­pas­sion come from all cor­ners of the globe. Since the bush­fire cri­sis un­folded, celebri­ties have been ea­ger to visit Cur­rumbin Wildlife Hospi­tal and di­rect their fans to fundrais­ing ini­tia­tives for the sanc­tu­ary.

Rap queen Iggy Aza­lea, Aussie ac­tor Lin­coln Lewis and Gold Coast singer and model Alli Simp­son are among the stars to see up close how an­i­mals have suf­fered dur­ing and af­ter the catas­tro­phe.

“Be­fore I went in and vis­ited the hospi­tal, I didn’t re­alise the sever­ity of what these an­i­mals go through and how many an­i­mals are brought in a day and are be­ing treated,”

says Alli, who has been reg­u­larly shar­ing shocking pho­tos of the bush­fires to her 2 mil­lion In­sta­gram fol­low­ers.

“I def­i­nitely had some tears in my eyes. There was a mumma koala and baby koala both be­ing treated and sick, lay­ing on the bed with breath­ing tubes. It was al­most like a hu­man hospi­tal.

“It was eye open­ing and very emo­tional. It makes me want to help as much as I pos­si­bly can.

“The most mem­o­rable thing about my visit was see­ing all the vol­un­teers — it was filled with peo­ple run­ning around with an­i­mals in their hands, patching up their burns.

“Fund­ing is what’s go­ing to keep it alive so they can keep get­ting the equip­ment. Right now, it’s not big enough for all the an­i­mals they’re get­ting through.

“It was pas­sion for me to push it out to the world be­cause I have so many fol­low­ers from all around the world.”

TV pre­sen­ter and Cur­rumbin Wildlife Sanc­tu­ary me­dia of­fi­cer Candice Dixon says the im­pact of vis­its from high-pro­file per­son­al­i­ties has been ex­tra­or­di­nary.

“We started a fundraiser for (animal) bush­fire vic­tims and our goal was to reach $50,000,” Candice says.

“We even thought that was am­bi­tious. It’s now up to more than $300,000.”

The bush­fire cri­sis has also made celebri­ties out of de­serv­ing he­roes, with one vol­un­teer in par­tic­u­lar gar­ner­ing global at­ten­tion for his work in lo­cat­ing live koalas.

Not that the good Sa­mar­i­tan will ever

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