Sam Mitchell balanced himself on a eucalyptus branch 30 feet above the ground as his meaty right fist clutched a koala, which wailed like a pig with breathing problems. The dark gray marsupial batted its 3-inch black claws in the air helplessly, and minutes later Mitchell crawled down. He and the animal were safely on the ground.
Across much of Australia, volunteers and professionals are fighting to contain widespread blazes, with many also taking risks to save wildlife being killed by the millions. Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination and wildlife park off Australia’s southeast coast, has been home to some of the worst damage to the nation’s biodiversity. Fires have overrun nearly half of the 1,700-square-mile island, and rescuers including Mitchell have been going tree to tree, trying to save what they can.
“There’s not much that isn’t threatening koalas at the moment,” said Mitchell, who has owned and run the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park with his wife the last seven years. Without being rescued, he said, “those that didn’t perish in the fire … are going to die of starvation.”
In terms of human fatalities, Australia’s blazes this year have been less severe than some previous bush fires, with roughly 27 people killed this season compared with 75 during the nation’s 1983 “Ash Wednesday” inferno. But the impact on wildlife this year has been far more devastating, a preview of what California could experience in future fire seasons.
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