It’s feared hundreds of koala bears have died in a huge wildfire in northern New South Wales, Australia.
The bushfire is thought to have been caused by a lightning strike near the town of Port Macquarie, however it went unchecked for days and burned through more than 2,000 hectares.
As of Wednesday morning (October 30), there were 71 fires burning across New South Wales, with 30 yet to be contained. Flames blazed through the heartland of the koalas’ prime habitat, including an important koala breeding ground, and experts fear it may have harmed a large number of the creatures.
Learn more about the fires below:
Port Macquarie Koala Hospital president Sue Ashton said she feared the worst as koalas were ‘terrible’ at coping in a bushfire scenario, 7 News reports. According to Ashton, during a fire koalas tend to climb to the top of a tree and curl up into a ball, meaning ‘flames will just go over the top and singe the outside’ of the creatures.
However, the koala hospital worker explained the animals can be burned alive if fires are particularly intense.
The hospital’s trained rescuers are unable to search for surviving koalas until Thursday or Friday, but Ashton made clear the loss of life would be a ‘tragedy’.
The beauty of this particular population is that it’s so genetically diverse that it’s of national significance.
A lot of the koalas are being mixed and cross-bred now… so to lose a large part of that population is very devastating.
Ashton went on to say that even if koalas manage to avoid a blaze, they can burn their paws and claws while climbing smouldering trees, causing injuries that can leave them unable to climb properly again.
The hospital, which can house up to 40 koalas, has recruited more than 150 volunteers to deal with the influx of injured animals they expect to get.
In a disaster people just switch on and you do what you have to do. No one can control nature, but there’s sadness because we care so much about the koalas.
Koalas are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, with their population threatened by urbanisation and habitat destruction.
The blaze broke containment lines on Tuesday but it was downgraded to watch-and-act advice level early Wednesday as conditions eased.
Greg Allan, spokesperson for New South Wales Rural Fire Service, said north-easterly winds had pushed smoke from the blaze as far south as Wollongong and Nowra.
It’s still an active fire and won’t be out for some time. The winds are pushing it down along the coast, which will keep happening as long as the fire is burning.
New South Wales Health reminded those in the area that children, older adults and people with heart and lung conditions were most susceptible to the effects of air pollution and excessive smoke.
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