Joining with the NSW Salt Ash fire wildlife search and rescue team

A lone slightly burned koala survived the bushfires.Fire season has come early and angrily to NSW.

There are currently still fires raging across the state, with soaring temperatures and high winds recently setting off three large fires in the Hunter Valley area.

One of these fires was in Salt Ash.

As soon as the fire ground was declared safe there, authorities called in local wildlife rescue groups Native Animal Trust Fund (NATF) and Hunter Koala Preservation Society. I was privileged to join their search and rescue team this week to do a ‘black walk’ of the fire ground to search for surviving wildlife.

Meeting at the base set up, we were briefed by Audrey Koosmen, Head of NATF on the task ahead. Audrey’s group has been active in rescuing wildlife from bushfires for many years.

The Hunter is a hotspot for fires – and also home to prime koala populations– a devastating mix. IFAW supplied NATF volunteers with fire gear and radios - essential for communication between rescue teams.

We all donned protective gear and were given whistles to alert the team when we saw an animal and also bags to put dead or alive animals in. Trained koala catchers Jay and Noel had nets and poles to retrieve injured koalas and snake handler Mel carried her snake catching gear.

Coming into the fireground, was confronting. As we walked through the blackened bush, the smell of smoke hit us. We waded through the swampy charred earth, scouring the ground and tree tops for signs of life. Areas of white ash were still smoking and trees were burned to their roots. Most of the trees were swamp mahogany trees – prime koala trees and also highly flammable due to their high eucalyptus oil content.  

After ten minutes of searching, we heard a whistle and someone shout ‘koala’!

We rushed over and saw a lone koala with suspected burned paws high up in a tree. Immediately Jay tied some leaves to the end of a pole and put it up the tree to try to entice the koala down. But she wasn’t interested in coming. She just climbed higher up the tree so after 20 minutes we marked the tree to return to and then continued. Reinforcements arrived shortly after and erected fencing with a humane trap around the bottom of the tree. When we left, the koala was fast asleep on the tallest branch, oblivious to our concerns.

A variety of other animals were spotted, some seemingly unharmed, while others had unfortunately been injured or incinerated.

The work was grueling. Amazingly, all of these wildlife rescuers donate their time with many taking leave to come and help.  IFAW thanks each and every one of them.

--JS 

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