Seven months after the Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust sanctuary at Peak View was destroyed in the summer’s tragic bushfires, koalas that were found struggling to survive in the charred forest are now ready to be released back into the wild.
ABC South East NSW: Vanessa Milton and Richard Snashall
When bushfires first broke out near the Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust sanctuary at Peak View in late December, James Fitzgerald spent his days firefighting and his nights rescuing and caring for injured wildlife.
The Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust sanctuary was destroyed by bushfire on January 23
Three American firefighters were killed when their plane crashed trying to protect the sanctuary
A quarter of koala habitat in NSW was impacted in last season’s bushfires
When the fires flared again in late January he lost his home, his 1,800-acre sanctuary, and all of the animals in his care.
He searched the burnt forest for months, finding koalas in desperate need of help.
Dr Karen Ford from the Australian National University is part of a team of researchers, veterinarians, and volunteers who have been caring for 41 koalas rescued since the fires and closely monitoring their recovery.
“It has been a lot of feeding and cleaning cages, picking up poo, and cutting leaves — lots of cutting leaves,” Dr Ford said.
She has spent most days at the Two Thumbs sanctuary since the first koalas were released back into the wild in late May, fitting the koalas with GPS collars to track their movements.
“We want to look at what parts of the landscape they are using, whether they need to rely on some trees that still have intact canopy or whether they’re quite happy to move through the burnt areas,” Dr Ford said.
“That’s really important for us, knowing when it’s okay to release koalas back into burnt areas, and how many koalas a burnt landscape can support.
Jessie, an adult female with a joey on her back, was found with the help of Bear the wildlife detection dog and Dr Romane Cristescu from the University of the Sunshine Coast.
On her first health check, an ultrasound revealed that she was also carrying a joey in utero.
“When Jessie first came in, she was very, very thin,” Mr Fitzgerald said.
“The vet had to warm her up, she almost died.”
Seven months on, Jessie is in good health, and her joey is almost ready to emerge from the pouch.
Before release, Karen Ford has applied a tracking collar and wildlife veterinarian Dr Arianne Lowe performed a health check.
She will be released with her two joeys and a young male who lost his mother in the bushfires, found with burnt hands and feet.
A quarter of koala habitat in NSW — and 60,000 hectares of habitat around Peak View — was impacted in last season’s bushfires, but Dr Lowe is buoyant about the rescued koalas’ prospects for survival.
“Karen’s research is showing that the koalas are doing well in the remnant areas that were unburnt and in the burnt areas that are recovering,” she said.
“We want them to thrive, and they will. And if they need support, then we’re also there for them.”
‘Hazard reduction eaters’
The vulnerability of koalas in the face of drought and bushfires is well-recognised, but James Fitzgerald believes more consideration should be given to the role that native animals play in protecting the forest.
“It’s estimated that there were well over 10 million koalas in Australia before they were hunted for their furs in the early 20th century,” Mr Fitzgerald said.
“Koalas eat up to a kilo of eucalyptus leaf every day, that would have been two million tonnes per year of ‘hazard reduction eating’, feeding on the most explosively flammable part of Australian forests.
“We’ve also lost our ‘forest engineers’, the bandicoots and potoroos. They turn over the leaf litter and bark, and keep the forest floor moist — instead of this dry forest floor which is much more fire-prone.”
A tragic legacy
Among the rescued koalas in James Fitzgerald’s care are three adult males named after the three US firefighters, Ian McBeth, Paul Hudson, and Rick DeMorgan Jr, who were killed when their air tanker plane crashed shortly after dropping fire retardant on the sanctuary.
“For those firefighters to come from the other side of the world to help us and then lose their lives, it’s a huge tragedy,” Mr Fitzgerald said.
Mr Fitzgerald now lives in a caravan, surrounded by a ‘ghost forest’ of burnt trees, focused on the task of rebuilding his sanctuary to support the koalas that survived the fires.
“These koalas have been recognised as a nationally significant population, with strong genetics,” Mr Fitzgerald said.
“Anywhere where those forested areas or grassland areas fires can start, and under the right heat or windy conditions, they can spread rapidly.”
He said the beginning of spring was a good time to be preparing properties and people for the oncoming fire season.
What can you do to prepare?
Dr Thornton said it was important to have a plan and understand what you would do and when you would act.
“Making sure that you’re prepared around the property as much as you can, be really clear about what you are going to do with your family, have multiple backups, be clear on what the signal is for you to enact that plan,” he said.
“Remember that fires can start close to where you live, so you may be the first person that knows about a fire — don’t always expect a warning.”
Pets, animals, children, elderly neighbours — now is the time to think about it and talk it though.
Queensland does get fires
Queensland is just starting its fire season and there have already been fires in the Gold Coast hinterland and near Toowoomba over the weekend.
“So now is the time when certainly people in Queensland should be really seriously thinking about their bushfire plans, thinking about what they’re going to do and understand where they’re going to get their information from,” Dr Thornton said.
“[That means] looking towards the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service for advice on what they should do and how they should behave.”
An image of flames “snaking across” a mountain taken during Australia’s Black Summer bushfires has earned its photographer top prize at one of the nation’s most prestigious nature photography competitions.
Queensland’s Ben Blanche snapped the photo at a tinder-dry Mount Barney National Park, south-west of Brisbane, last November.
He has now been recognised as the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year for 2020, an award bestowed by the South Australian Museum.
Recalling the scene that secured him the honour, Mr Blanche said he was helped by a local who provided information on fire conditions “leading up to the day”.
“The fire was rather slow-moving and took some hours to move across the mountain,” Mr Blanche said.
“When I took this image, many Australians were grappling with the very real effects of climate change and how it is impacting our environment, communities, economies and way of life.”
The competition’s judges said the photo “skilfully captures a landscape”.
“In the wave of flames snaking across the mountain, we see the true scale of the fire,” the judges said in their citation.
Small business owner Christine O’Neill says her retail shop in Taralga suffered a significant loss of revenue during the 2019-20 bushfires, mainly due to a decline in domestic visitors. Ms O’Neill also said her business was forced to close, and stock was damaged. “The fires greatly impacted my business,” Ms O’Neill said. The Green Wattle Creek fire burned within ten kilometres of Taralga, it destroyed the surrounding bush and closed nearby tourist attraction, Wombeyan Caves. “The town was blanketed in thick smoke for days, preventing me from opening my store. My business suffered as a direct consequence.” Ms O’Neill has operated Eclectopia Gifts for four and a half years, and she said her retail business was hit hard. Read also: Utterly derailed: Rockmans, Millers, Rivers owner to close up to 500 stores “My retail business had been moving forward and growing. The loss of tourism was felt heavily.” She said businesses across the Upper Lachlan Shire local government area had lost revenue due to a lack of domestic visitors. “Taralga and Crookwell businesses have suffered. “We face an unknown future in this little part of the greater Southern Tablelands,” she said. Ms O’Neill was astonished that local businesses missed out on bushfire recovery support. “The grant would make an enormous difference,” she said. Hansard records dated June 3 showed the Member for Goulburn Wendy Tuckerman met with the Deputy Premier John Barilaro to advocate for local businesses during a visit to the area. The office of the Deputy Premier John Barilaro sent a request to the Minister for Drought and Emergency Management David Littleproud to extend support to the Upper Lachlan Shire. However, the $10,000 small business grant to aid with bushfire recovery has not been extended to the community. We depend on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, please subscribe here. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.
Small business owner Christine O’Neill says her retail shop in Taralga suffered a significant loss of revenue during the 2019-20 bushfires, mainly due to a decline in domestic visitors.
Ms O’Neill also said her business was forced to close, and stock was damaged.
BUSINESS: Christine O’Neill was forced to close her retail shop in Taralga during the Green Wattle Creek fire. Photo supplied.
“The fires greatly impacted my business,” Ms O’Neill said.
The Green Wattle Creek fire burned within ten kilometres of Taralga, it destroyed the surrounding bush and closed nearby tourist attraction, Wombeyan Caves.
“The town was blanketed in thick smoke for days, preventing me from opening my store. My business suffered as a direct consequence.”
Ms O’Neill has operated Eclectopia Gifts for four and a half years, and she said her retail business was hit hard.
“My retail business had been moving forward and growing. The loss of tourism was felt heavily.”
She said businesses across the Upper Lachlan Shire local government area had lost revenue due to a lack of domestic visitors.
“Taralga and Crookwell businesses have suffered.
“We face an unknown future in this little part of the greater Southern Tablelands,” she said.
Ms O’Neill was astonished that local businesses missed out on bushfire recovery support.
“The grant would make an enormous difference,” she said.
Hansard records dated June 3 showed the Member for Goulburn Wendy Tuckerman met with the Deputy Premier John Barilaro to advocate for local businesses during a visit to the area.
The office of the Deputy Premier John Barilaro sent a request to the Minister for Drought and Emergency Management David Littleproud to extend support to the Upper Lachlan Shire. However, the $10,000 small business grant to aid with bushfire recovery has not been extended to the community.
We depend on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, please subscribe here. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.
The New South Wales Bushfire Inquiry report into last season’s terrible bushfires has put hazard reduction burning and grazing in the spotlight.
The bushfire inquiry report says drought and lightning were the key causes, not a lack of hazard reduction
The community believes that not enough hazard reduction is being done
There is concern about hazard reduction strategies in national parks and pine plantations
As the next fire season approaches, rural communities are wondering what needs to be done to prevent a repeat of the mega fires.
The report did not identify a lack of hazard reduction as a major cause of the extreme fires.
The authors, Dave Owens and Mary O’Kane, found the fuel load was extremely dry due to the drought and a high number of lightning strikes ignited many fires often in remote areas.
Despite that finding they also noted there was a “perception” in fire-affected communities that too much fuel had been allowed to accumulate and inadequate hazard reduction burning over decades were major contributing factors to the number of fires, their ability to spread, and their intensity.
Call to increase hazard reduction burning and grazing
Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen said more needed to be done to manage fuel loads in national parks.
Mr Johnsen said Parks and Wildlife seemed to have a “lock it and leave it” approach to land management and he supported selective grazing to keep fuel loads down.
While acknowledging the report’s references to the changing climate, Mr Johnsen said he was still not convinced about the role that humans had played in the changes.
Former head of NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) Brian Gilligan said he was worried that the debate had not moved on much since he finished in the role in 2003.
“I think it is very disturbing that we have got politicians apparently like Michael Johnsen who haven’t made up their mind still about climate change, despite the fact that there are scientists who are specialists in that area having been telling us for at least 30 years that is what we are facing,” Mr Gilligan said.
Grazing questioned as hazard reduction method
Mr Gilligan welcomed the inquiry’s decision to recommend more research into hazard reduction techniques such as grazing, but cautioned against raising expectations after trailing it himself in the parks system.
“Concentrated fuel reduction is only going to happen around a water source and where the animals find a preferential plant to feed on, and in that area they will tend to overgraze,” he said.
He warned that grazing in national parks increased the potential for erosion and weed infestation.
Mr Gilligan said the overwhelming number of fires impacting on national parks started outside the parks on adjoining land, and if the park was the origin it was invariably due to lightning strike.
‘Not a licence to burn’
MP Justin Field warned people not to misinterpret the report’s finding on hazard reduction.
“It didn’t talk about opening up national parks for grazing,” he said.
The report did note that individual responsibility for managing risk was central and making properties as safe as possible should start from listening to people at the local level and taking action locally.
Action wanted on RFS equipment
Riverina Highlands farmer Alan Beck understood the risks associated with fire in rural areas.
He lost sheds, fences, livestock, pastures and fodder when two fire fronts swept through most of his property at Lower Bago, north of Tumbarumba, on New Year’s Eve and again on January 4.
Mr Beck welcomed the findings but wanted more detail and certainty from the Government on exactly what the recommendations were and when they would be implemented.
He said authorities should promptly enact a minimum 100-metre boundary on pine forests bordering roadsides and properties.
It was one of a long list of things he would like to see done including more roadside grazing to reduce grass fuel loads; improved communications between RFS ground staff and regional control; more on-ground firefighting support; and fallen dead trees on roadsides to be cleared for access.
Mr Beck, who is also president of the Lower Bago RFS, said the brigade desperately needed to update its truck, which was more than 20 years old.
He said the Lower Bago RFS had received a grant and it would be used to improve firefighting equipment for the future.
An emergency situation has been declared in response to the bushfire threat near Darwin, with dangerous weather conditions set to worsen on Thursday.
A total fire ban declared on Wednesday will remain in place, with extreme conditions forecast in the Darwin and Adelaide River forecast zones and severe conditions to stretch as far south as Katherine.
A fire near Lake Bennett that took hold on Monday night was downgraded from watch and act level to advice on Wednesday afternoon.
Bureau of Meteorology NT manager Todd Smith said dangerous conditions fuelled by “exceptionally dry air”, high inland temperatures and a high pressure system to the south would peak on Thursday and last for the rest of the week.
He said the fire danger forecast could reach catastrophic levels in exposed areas between Batchelor and Adelaide River on Thursday.
“This sort of weather set-up is something that we will probably only see once every five years,” he said.
An emergency operation centre was set up in Darwin on Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for Emergency Services Minister Nicole Manison confirmed an emergency situation had been declared late on Wednesday afternoon.
It means authorised officers can issue directions to property owners and evacuate residents by force if necessary.
‘Unpredictable’ conditions for volunteers
Forecasters warned dry winds were expected to persist overnight on Wednesday.
Bushfires NT executive director Collene Bremner said Wednesday’s 65 kilometre per hour winds and dry conditions had made firefighting difficult for volunteers.
Ms Bremner said an extra waterbombing helicopter had been sent from South Australia to the Top End to assist.
The NT Health Department issued a statement on Wednesday warning smoke from the fires was affecting air quality and could pose a risk to people with respiratory conditions.