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Search to save smallest survivors of Australia fires
by Staff Writers
Springwood, Australia (AFP) Oct 24, 2013

Australia firefighters start to gain upper hand
Sydney (AFP) Oct 25, 2013 - Firefighters in Australia took advantage of lighter winds Friday to get on top of a nine-day bushfire emergency as officials said the military could be liable for compensation after starting one of the worst blazes.

Thousands of largely volunteer firefighters have been battling infernos that have destroyed more than 200 homes, cost two lives, and razed more than 124,000 hectares (306,000 acres) across New South Wales state since last week.

The damage bill so far is estimated at Aus$138 million (US$132 million), according to the Insurance Council of Australia, with more than 1,000 claims made and many more expected over the coming days.

Operations are now being wound back although 57 bush and grass fires continue to burn with 23 yet to be contained. No property was currently under threat and none of the fires was considered an "emergency", the highest danger level.

"Cooler temperatures today, however residents should remain vigilant," the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said on its Facebook page.

A fire service spokeswoman added that crews were taking advantage of a drop in winds and temperatures to strengthen containment lines and continue aggressive backburning -- a tactic aimed at creating firebreaks to control the path of blazes.

"Overnight it has been backburning on most of those fires and patrolling the containment lines, as well as mopping up," she said, with more than 800 firefighters and 72 aircraft still deployed.

"With the cooler weather we want to strengthen those containment lines."

One of the biggest and fiercest infernos still alight -- which at one point had a perimeter of more than 300 kilometres (185 miles) and has ripped through nearly 50,000 hectares (123,500 acres) of land around the Blue Mountain west of Sydney -- was started by the military.

Defence chiefs apologised on Thursday for the blaze which was sparked by exploding ordnance on a live firing range last week and New South Wales Premier Barry O'Farrell said he planned to meet with Prime Minister Tony Abbott soon to discuss potential liabilities.

"Clearly at least seven or so homes were lost as a result of that fire," he told reporters.

"We need to see what's going to be done... we need to settle the compensation issues."

As firefighting efforts continued, the body of a pilot killed when his fixed wing water-bomber crashed in rugged terrain while tackling a blaze south of Sydney on Thursday was recovered.

An ambulance officer was winched into the remote area where the crash happened and confirmed father-of-three David Black, 43, was dead. But fires and strong winds had prevented rescue crews from retrieving the body.

The only other fatality so far was a 63-year-old man who had a heart attack while trying to protect his home from the flames last week. Deaths were minimised as residents heeded advice either to flee or seek refuge at evacuation centres.

Lightning strikes are believed to have sparked some of the blazes although several people, including young children, have been charged with deliberately starting fires.

Wildfires are common in Australia's summer months from December to February.

But an unusually dry and warm winter and record spring temperatures has seen the 2013-14 season start early with warnings of a long, tough summer ahead, sparking debate this week over whether climate change had played a part.

As the Blue Mountains bushfire threat eases and hundreds of residents return to their homes a relief and rescue operation is just beginning for its smallest victims -- Australia's unique wildlife.

Veterinarians across the region west of Sydney are on standby as volunteer crews from animal rescue group WIRES hike out into scorched bush areas in search of native creatures that have survived the flames.

Residents whose own homes have been destroyed are putting aside their trauma to do everything they can for their animal neighbours, with WIRES describing the public response as 'mindblowing'.

Zoologist and WIRES volunteer Anna Felton is coordinating operations from the rapid-response WIRES ambulance, a 50-animal capacity van stocked with painkillers, burns cream, pouches for orphaned baby animals and cotton sheets -- the only safe way to pick up a burned animal without damaging its skin.

Native birds such as cockatoos fled the mountains early, sensing imminent danger, but Felton said other animals, particularly ground and tree-dwelling marsupials such as wombats, wallabies and koalas, are "not as clued into that sort of thing and are more haphazard in their fleeing".

"So they're the ones that are kind of hanging around here with really, really nasty injuries," Felton told AFP.

There are typically few survivors from events like these -- just 10 percent of native animals were estimated to have survived the 2009 Black Saturday wildfires which killed 173 Australians in neighbouring Victoria state, with more than one million wildlife deaths.

"If history is anything to go on the number that survive is very, very low," Felton said.

Rescues have been steadily increasing since an inferno swept through the lower mountains last Thursday, razing more than 200 homes and vast tracts of bushland, with "possums and birds, a few sugar gliders and quite a few wallabies," among the most recent reported casualties.

"Most of them have pretty substantial burns at this point in time, and whilst we've been able to get a fair amount of them to vets and then out to our carers the overall outlook on what's come in so far is not great to be honest," she said.

"The ones we've seen have pretty substantial injuries."

As well as responding to injury reports from its Sydney call centre -- currently running at around 300 per day, including non-fire related incidents -- Felton and other volunteers will trek into blackened wilderness areas searching for survivors.

Apart from burns, typically to the paws and face, many animals are also dehydrated and suffering internal smoke inhalation injuries.

Once rescued, injured animals are taken to a local vet for triage and emergency care before being released into the custody of a trained WIRES volunteer carer, of which there are 2,000 across New South Wales state, for a period of six to 12 months.

Each volunteer is trained in the care of a specific type of animal and rescued creatures of the same species will be housed together where possible to maintain their wild traits and self-sufficiency.

Orphans are "buddied" with another animal of the same species to teach them appropriate wild behaviours and with whom, when the time comes, they will be released back into the bush.

It requires patience and dedication, with many rescued charges keeping nocturnal hours meaning carers coming home from their day jobs will wake every few hours to feed the animals and dress their wounds.

Felton said the community response to the wildfires had been overwhelming, with huge donations of medical supplies and cash.

Blue Mountains locals whose own homes came under threat from the fires were as concerned about putting bowls of water and seed out for their native neighbours as protecting their property, and Felton said they were "broken" to return and find familiar creatures missing.

One woman whose parents lost their home drove 80 kilometres (49 miles) and spent an "exorbitant" sum stocking up on essentials for the WIRES van to "assist in her way with her grieving and emotions".

Even those who lost everything would dash from the ruins of their homes when they saw the WIRES van go by.

"Their houses were gone and yet they'd come running to the van to say 'Oh I saw a wallaby, it went that way'... and you sit there thinking oh my goodness. It's mindblowing," said Felton.


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