ON 23 JANUARY 2020 southern Australia’s Black Summer bush fires swept through the Peak View district between Captains Flat and Cooma. They caused a widely-reported twofold disaster.
On this day Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust Koala Sanctuary was totally enveloped in the blaze, many native animals perished and tragically an air tanker and three American crew trying to protect the sanctuary also died when their tanker crashed next to the property.
Five months later wildlife rescuer and sanctuary owner James Fitzgerald felt he could relive that terrible day with us and talk about his recovery for the sanctuary and the koalas.
CAPTION (main image): James Fitzgerald and newly-housed koala make acquaintance. (Image: Jacob Howard)
Throughout the district and as you enter Two Thumbs, you see evidence of the fires on the small clusters of trees that cover the land. After travelling along a dirt road for a few kilometres and past the third gate we approach a destroyed house, which was previously James’ home. (Image: Jacob Howard)
A fireplace stands tall in the middle of the corpse of the house. The remaining metal has been completely warped and bent with everything being covered in flowing patterns of blue and brown/orange rust. Incredibly, the clothesline in the backyard appeared to be almost untouched by the fire. James tells us later that when the fire swept through, he had two koalas in care at the house and two goannas. He could not reach them.
Shortly after we arrive James and colleague Dr Karen Ford (from ANU) drive past us on their way to collect fresh tree branches for their koalas in enclosures. Soon, we follow them further into the burned property. About halfway up a hill we reach an opening of flat unburned land. This open area is the site of new koala housing.
Several shipping containers are scattered around the site but the main focus is the koala enclosures. Two large and airy structures are already built and a further two are in process of being built.
“I’m using some insurance money to build these two new enclosures, and some generous donations are helping us build more,” James said. He is living in a caravan himself and is happy that after six months he is getting some electricity back. He has six enclosures in mind. James explains that they chose this space because it was one of the few areas that the fires didn’t destroy.
James and Karen are introducing a new koala to the sanctuary. He leans in obligingly for ‘meeting’ photos. They tell us this koala was being cared for at ANU after he suffered heavy burns to his feet in the fires but is now healthy enough to live in the enclosures at Two Thumbs.
The koalas stay here for about eight weeks as they continue recovery from their wounds, before being released.
“We named three of the koalas after the American firefighters who died in the plane crash — Ian, Rick and Paul. The families of the Americans have actually met the koalas and they were very appreciative that we named the koalas after them. We greatly acknowledge their sacrifice.”
James said they had found about 50 koalas since the fires. More than they had hoped for appear to be maintaining themselves in the burned environment. James and Karen are tracking the location and recovery of some.
Dr Karen studies the nutrition of eucalyptus leaves and she is tracking koala movements at Two Thumbs to understand how they behave post fires. She brings out her computer with the tracking details of three radio-collared koalas and shows us where they have been and how far they have travelled over the past day.
“They often have their favourite areas that they like to go to and favourite paths they like to take,” she explains. But they can travel amazing distances in 24 hours, she is finding. At the back of the property which is burned as far as the eye can see with a few unburned patches, we try and locate some of the koalas through a radio transmitter. Each koala has its own frequency so they know which animal they are listening in on.
The radio works as a sort of sonar radar with the frequency of beeps telling you how close you are to the koala.
“The koalas that survived were just lucky enough to be holding onto a tree that wasn’t burned down,” said James. Those areas that are still green is where the fire changed direction and that’s where the koalas will go to feed and sleep.”
Before we leave, Karen is able to pick up the signal up of two of the koalas but they are very faint.
Where the airtanker crashed
On the way out of sanctuary James takes us to the site where the tanker crashed. The plane crashed just outside of Two Thumbs’ property but you can see the crash site from the sanctuary. You can see the clearing where the plane went down very clearly.
“The plane went down on the 23rd which was the biggest day for the fires and when the plane went down, we didn’t even hear it because the fires are incredibly loud,” said James. Smoke was thick and wind was high.
James, who has experienced wholesale destruction of his home and his rescue work, is strong and resolved on a comeback, for koalas and also for the other native animals (kangaroos, wallabies, birds and reptiles) on his property. He is sadly realistic too. He tells us he is now back to an earlier point of rebuilding the local koala population. It took 40 plus years to get to the pre-fire level, one of the few areas in this part of south eastern NSW with an increasing population.
But with this continuing help and care there is hope for these koalas.
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