Koalas and mates run for lives in Oz bush blazes

The first victim of Sydney's wildfire crisis was brought to Jenny Peters's doorstep on Christmas Day.

A motorist had found the ringtail possum cowering by the side of the road, shaking badly. Its fur was scorched, its whiskers burned away.

Two days later came the tiny pygmy possum that Mrs. Peters rescued from a friend's property. Its tail was burned. So were its feet. That Saturday, emergency workers brought her another ringtail possum, a mother who had been suckling. The babies weren't with her and, Peters says, "she was very, very stressed out."

Ever since a large part of the countryside around Sydney - about 1.25 million acres, or half the size of Yellowstone National Park - erupted on Christmas Day, firefighters have been battling almost nonstop to save human lives and homes. But as the crisis begins to abate without the loss of a single human life, the focus is moving to the impact on koalas and other native wildlife.

In the homes of volunteers like Jenny Peters - and the offices of veterinarians and other experts - they're trying to figure out just what that impact has been. The simple answer is it's too early to tell. But thanks to what looks like relatively few animal victims ending up in shelters, disagreement is already sprouting over just how tragic these fires have - or have not - been.

According to Carol MacDougall, chief executive officer of the Wildlife Information & Rescue Service (WIRES), a network of volunteers (including Peters) who care for injured animals across Sydney's home state of New South Wales, the organization has so far cared for 200 animals injured by the fires.

That is a small number when you consider that last year WIRES notched up 56,000 rescues.

That makes Mrs. MacDougall think the toll on wildlife may have been dauntingly large. No animals to rescue, she says, could mean there were simply more killed in the intense fires that have bounced through the eucalyptus forests around Sydney at upwards of 30 miles an hour.

"It's absolutely devastating," MacDougall says. "We're very disappointed by the [low] number of animals that have come in. We would have hoped for more."

She isn't the only one worried. In 1994, when the last major fires raged around Sydney, there were more than 50 possums brought into a triage center set up at the Wonderland Wildlife Park.

"This year we had three or four," says Amanda Twomey, a veterinary nurse at the park. But "because we haven't got that many in, it doesn't mean that we haven't lost many."

This year's fires, Ms. Twomey says, were in more isolated areas, away from the helping hands of humans. They also moved faster and may have been harder for animals to escape.

At the Australian Koala Foundation, they are so concerned about the possible impact on what is already a threatened population of koalas in New South Wales that they have established a disaster fund.

In 1994, at least one community of koalas north of Sydney was almost wiped out by wildfires. From that area alone some 50 koalas ended up at rescue centers, according to Ann Sharp, spokeswoman for the foundation. This time, not one koala has been brought in to wildlife rescue groups anywhere around Sydney, Ms. Sharp says.

That, Sharp believes, may be a sign that turns out to be bad rather than good for the 10,000 koalas thought to be living in New South Wales.

"A number of the areas affected had koalas in them and those are very small, isolated populations," Sharp says. "Regardless of whether animals have come in or not, these fires have been very hot, and there is always a lower likelihood that animals will survive that."

Not everyone is so pessimistic, though. At Taronga Zoo, on the shores of Sydney Harbour, vets have seen just one animal injured by this year's fires and when senior veterinarian Larry Vogelnest compares that to the two brought in during the 1994 fires he doesn't see any cause to be alarmed.

"There's a lot of history with respect to fires in the Australian bush and there is no doubt that particularly since European settlement in Australia, with the many other factors that affect animal populations, fires have contributed to the demise of some animal species," Dr. Vogelnest says.

In addition, the fact is that "the Australian bush is designed to be burned. Many of the [plant] species rely on fire to reproduce." Many animals also have adapted.

Kangaroos outrun fires. Wombats - a sleepy-eyed marsupial - burrow underground. And while koalas have a reputation for getting stuck during fires in the explosive eucalyptuses they favor as food, the reality, Vogelnest says, is that they can often ride out fires in the leafy canopy if the blaze is limited to the undergrowth.

While many of the fires this year have leaped into the canopy, he says, the evidence so far points to the fact that, "most of the areas that have been burned have not been completely burned. So there are still areas for animals to go into and seek refuge."

That, Vogelnest argues, means that while individual animals may have died or been injured, populations - and species - are fairly unlikely to have been affected.

Much of the vegetation in these fires typically bounces back quickly and the animal life usually isn't far behind.

"I'm talking about within a week to 10 days of the fire, you get some growth back," Vogelnest says. "Trees shoot very, very quickly after fires, and all those young leaves provide excellent nutrition for the animals that are left."

There is a tragic side to this year's fires in that authorities believe many of them were set by arsonists, making some of the inevitable animal deaths an act of misdirected cruelty. Almost 30 people have been arrested on suspicion of arson, many of them teenagers.

But fire is a natural phenomenon in Australia and that it brings life almost as quickly as it takes it away.

Like many other WIRES volunteers, Jenny Peters is philosophical about the fires. They are just part of life in Australia, she concedes.

But she is still eagerly waiting for the all-clear from authorities to go into the fire-affected areas so that she can lend a helping hand to any injured animals she may find.

One of the four possums she has been taking care of - the injured mother - has died. But in the nearby Royal National Park, she is convinced there are dozens more victims waiting for help.

"I think it's going to be about two weeks before they let anybody in. But we're anxious to get in there," she says. "There's all these little wallabies in there that probably have burned feet."

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