On the Kangaroo Island of Australia, rescuers compete to save wildlife from fire

Sam Mitchell balanced himself on a eucalyptus branch 30 feet off the ground while his fleshy right fist clung to a koala, which groaned like a pig with respiratory problems. The dark gray marsupial hit its 3-inch black claws in the air without being able to do anything, and minutes later Mitchell crawled. He and the animal were safe on the ground.

In much of Australia, volunteers and professionals struggle to contain widespread fires, and many are also at risk to save millions of people who kill wildlife. Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination and wildlife park off the southeast coast of Australia, has been home to some of the worst biodiversity damage in the nation. Fires have invaded almost half of the 1,700 square mile island, and rescuers, including Mitchell, have gone from tree to tree, trying to save what they can.

“There is not much that does not threaten the koalas at this time,” said Mitchell, who has been the owner and administrator of Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park for the past seven years.

In terms of human deaths, Australia’s fires this year have been less severe than some previous wildfires, with approximately 27 people killed this season compared to 75 during the “Ash Wednesday” hell of 1983 in the nation. But the impact on wildlife this year has been much more devastating, a foretaste of what California might experience in future fire seasons.

Scientists estimate that, so far in Australia, fires have killed hundreds of millions to more than one billion native animals. The toll illustrates that, although humans can adapt a little to the intensification of fires, through better emergency planning, more firefighting equipment and “hardening of the home,” delicate ecosystems are much more vulnerable.

“Most Australian landscapes are in tune with the small-scale summer fires, but not with the fires of the proportion and intensity we are observing now,” said Katja Hogendoorn, a professor at the school of agriculture, food and wine at the University of Adelaide.

“These incomprehensibly large and devastating fires are caused by a combination of lower rains and higher temperatures, both consequences of climate change, and here to stay and get worse, unless drastic actions are taken worldwide,” he added. . “As the driest and hottest continent, Australia is at the forefront of this environmental disaster.”

It is difficult to obtain accurate figures on the loss of animals as the disaster continues to develop, and some fire officials say the flames will continue in March. But the damage to natural heritage has already become clear. The endangered dunnart of Kangaroo Island, a mouse-shaped marsupial, relies on low vegetation to protect itself from birds. That is largely gone, as is most of the home of the shiny black cockatoo. Much of the landscape is black and latent.

“We are not sure if they can return. It could be the breaking point for them,” said Michaela Haska, the director of the wildlife park, talking about the cockatoos of striking colors. The males are blackish brown, with red bands on the tail; the females are dark brown with some yellow spots.

On Kangaroo Island, Mitchell’s 50-acre property is surrounded by burn scars, but it was miraculously intact by the flames, and the skies that had been drowned for days with smoke were cleared Monday. For weeks, the wildlife park has become a shelter for animals rescued by volunteers and bystanders.

The carcasses of animals cover the shoulders of the roads that cross the rugged landscape of the island. Most are dead, and others are in such bad shape that they move in an unusual way towards humans, whether unable to see or hungry and disoriented.

In the park, there is an emerging tent where crews serve medical equipment including intravenous drip bags, bandages, gauze and iodine-filled saucers. Nearby there are laundry baskets where the koalas are located, their burnt legs wrapped and bandaged.

Three weeks ago, the scene at Mitchell Park and his wife, Dana, was very different. His low-rise ranch-style house had a small arrangement of cages and pens in the back for about 20 koalas and other animals, which was enough to treat an irregular flow of sick fauna while they could continue to operate their park, cafeteria and others. tourist attractions.

Scientists estimate that, so far in Australia, fires have killed hundreds of millions to more than one billion native animals.

Scientists estimate that, so far in Australia, fires have killed hundreds of millions to more than one billion native animals.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

But then the fires came. Two emerged moderately from lightning on December 20 and were on their way to being controlled when a third lightning on December 30 created a monstrous fire. In five days, it consumed approximately one third of the island and, according to Mitchell, about 80% of the habitat of the island of Koala.

The fire has destroyed 65 houses here, some of them during a single night last week when winds carried embers over firefighters and overwhelmed their defenses.

A father and son trapped in his car were killed along a main road and were buried this week. Firefighters on other fronts that night had to make difficult decisions about which homes to save and which to leave.

“It makes it difficult, because there are locals there who want you to help them, but realistically, in the end, my crew’s life is in danger and I have to protect them from something we might not get out of,” he said. Gary Jenkins, a volunteer firefighter who fought the flames. “It was probably one of the worst things I’ve been through.”

Some call Australia’s fires an animal apocalypse, a preview of what could happen in California as fires intensify and burn more, as is expected to occur in many climate change scenarios.

That perspective concerns many fire ecologists, who for a long time preached that California and other western states have a long history of fires, with flora and fauna adapted to survive, and even thrive, after seasonal fires.

“We have a saying that says pyro-diversity breeds eco-diversity,” said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the Geos Institute based in Ashland, Oregon, who has studied the ecology of forest fires extensively in the western United States.

But recent super hot fires in California, and widespread wildlife deaths in Australia, cause some scientists to question whether these intensely unnatural fires pose a threat to conventional wisdom, at least in Australia.

Derek Lee, a senior scientist at the Wild Nature Institute and a researcher at Penn State University, said he is skeptical about the “billion” of animals killed in fires, but acknowledges that something in Australia is out of control. Others say there is a long history of wildlife dying in fires in California, but the impact has received little attention so far.

Robert Fisher, a California-based supervisor scientist at the US Geological Survey. UU., He said that wildlife often dies in large fires, but those losses are eclipsed or not reported, due to the threat to the human population.

In the fire of the 2009 station in Los Angeles, he said: “I saw thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dead animals … deer, fish, turtles.”

Fisher could not explain why so little attention has been paid to killing animals in American fires. He speculated that the cause has something to do with the past loss of iconic creatures in the United States, which no longer has the equivalent of koalas, emus and kangaroos.

“We have already eliminated the buffalo and the grizzlies. Can you imagine if thousands of grizzlies were burned? People would go crazy, ”he said.

In Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, the koala rescued by Mitchell had been seen by the owners a day earlier.

They lost track of him but then saw the creature. They immediately sent a message to the park team on Facebook, and within minutes the team had alerted Mitchell: “We have another one.”

Mitchell said the rescue hides the fate of many other creatures that have perished without warning. Visitors, he said, could drive and think that some koalas have survived.

“They are going to starve to death. There are many koalas that are sitting in trees where they would not normally be sitting,” he said.

“People think they are fine, but they won’t be in another week.”

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