On January 3, a shift in wind direction turned a somewhat-contained fire on Kangaroo Island into an unstoppable monster that killed two and destroyed nearly 70 homes. For the island community of less than 5,000, it was a tragedy. But for the island's native fauna, it's been catastrophic.
Kangaroo Island sits about 10 kilometres from the South Australian mainland, about 200 kilometres south of Adelaide. It got its name from the vast number of western grey kangaroos seen (and probably eaten) by English navigator Matthew Flinders when he arrived in 1802. And in the 200-odd years since Flinders' arrival, the Island has managed to preserve its native species in a way the mainland hasn't. If you visited in December you would have seen kangaroos and koalas in their thousands, but with over 200,000 hectares of bushland now reduced to charred earth, the island has become a nursery for injured wildlife.
In many ways, what happened on Kangaroo Island is a micro-version of what has happened across many parts of Australia. The estimated number of dead animals is upwards of a billion, while many species have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Yet, working to minimise this damage, is a collection of local volunteers, army reserve personnel, vets, farmers and even children who have banded together to locate and treat the injured.
We ventured to Kangaroo Island to meet some of these people, and to see an example of how Australian communities are now banding together to repair and heal.
At 6 AM, just a few days after the fire, my photographer mate Sam and I hopped on the ferry from the South Australian mainland to Kangaroo Island. From the ferry, we could see a thin veil of smoke hanging in the air. I had been to the island a few times, but as we disembarked, it all seemed new and alien. The cafes in Penneshaw were full of emergency service and military-looking people, and the streets were empty.
From the port we travelled inland, where the first signs of fire damage began to appear. Stepping off the road we found the earth coated in at least six inches of ash, while the stumps of collapsed gums continued to smoulder.
We arrived at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, which had been converted to the island’s triage and treatment centre for injured animals. The first things we saw was a pop-up medical tent sitting next to hundreds of boxes of donations from all around Australia being sorted by personnel from the Army Reserve. There, waiting to meet us with hands on hips, was the park’s full time manager and sometimes firefighter, Bill Dunlop.
“We’ve basically converted every horizontal service we have to a treatment area,” Bill explained, gesturing to the organised chaos. “We are set up to accept any and all wildlife from across the island.”
Bill gave us a quick tour around the park while explaining it was the South Australian Veterinary Emergency Management agency (SAVEM) who had erected the tent. Inside, we found vets who hadn’t stopped work for 15 hours. Severely injured koalas were being brought in, laid on tables, and then treated for burns to their paws, eyes and noses.
“Some of the animals coming in have injuries that are far too severe to heal,” Bill told us, sombrely side-stepping through the tent. “And with the influx of animals we're having, we have to triage them to have any chance of saving the most number.”
More koalas were being treated in the tent than any other animal. Bill explained that 80 percent of the island's koala's habitat had been lost to the fires, leading to some 100 singed koalas handed into the wildlife centre.
We came inside the main house to find orphaned koala joeys asleep in baby cots, or latched onto the arms of those looking after them. Supplies for treating burns were scattered across the dining room table.
Then through the house and outside we found newly-arrived kangaroo joeys hopping around the back yard. One seemed to have lost its sight, and was being hand-fed. Others were sheepishly interacting with carers, while I saw a few jump into their pillowcase pouches, which were hanging from the fence.
“In my opinion, there’s no tougher animal in this world than the kangaroo,” mused Bill, looking down at a joey feeding from a bottle. "Some have come in here with their feet burned all the way to the bone.”
The place was a melancholic mix of hope and heartbreak: all those burned kangaroos limping about, and the bandaged koalas sitting on the floors of enclosures, unable to climb, staring at the branches above them.
Sombrely, Bill told us that he was fearful for some of the species on the island that may have been wiped out. “Some of the other species that were struggling before any of this may well be extinct now," he said. "The glossy black cockatoo, the Kangaroo Island dunnart. There will be a toll on every species."
Bill was one of the many people on the island who kept his own house by fighting off the approaching fire, as well as the park. He told us that when everyone else was evacuated, he raced home to defend his house and possessions.
“It’s been horrendous, just as a person on the island,” he said. “I feel like the island is dying. And sure, I haven’t lost my house yet, but sometimes it feels like a ‘when’ and not an ‘if.’” He paused to pat an agitated koala nibbling at its burnt paws.
“It is so important that people come back to this island once all this is finished. If they don’t, we won’t survive, and if we aren’t here, then what will happen to the 600 species of native Australian animals that live here?” He fell quiet, looking back at the house.
We got back in the car and headed to the western end of the island, which was hit the hardest. Pulling over again, there was an eerie silence to the scrubland that once housed hundreds of species. Sam squatted in the ash to photograph a petrified kangaroo that had been caught in the flames.
As we began heading back to the ferry, the wind got up from the south, and turned a few remnant embers into active fires. Driving through the island, we watched people swinging back into action: refilling their mobile water tanks, moving livestock from one burned paddock to something with a bit more fodder. From the car window it seemed like a well-rehearsed dance, performed with reluctance.
We pulled over to find one family, the Dunstans fighting a flare-up that had moved from the grass to the lower branches of the trees on their drive. Jack and his daughter Evie, and her partner Charlie, were racing, desperately trying to stamp out flames as they made their way towards the house.
It must have been strange for the Dunstans to watch a car pull over, and disgorge people who wanted to snap photos and ask questions, but they seemed happy for the help. “You guys can make yourselves useful,” hollered Jack and gestured towards his ute. “Jump in.”
We piled into Jack’s ute to bounce through the scrubby bush surrounding the house, jumping out every few minutes to stomp and douse flames into submission.
Between all this action Jack somehow managed to explain that he and his wife Wendy had spent years planting natives for the wallabies, kangaroos and birds that frequented the creek on their property.
Now, looking around the wasted, blackened land, Jack told us he was sad but optimistic. “You see that,” he said pointing to a thicket of scrub in the middle of his paddock. “Three years ago, a fire destroyed all of that.. It will all come back with enough time,”
After an hour the wind died off and we said our goodbyes. We headed back to the port, then took the ferry back to the mainland with the smoked-out island retreating in the rearview mirror.
It’s now been a couple of weeks since we visited Kangaroo Island, and the fires have since been contained. The nightly news has shifted to other problems, but I still regularly think about what Bill said when we left the park that day: “These next eight to 12 months will be when we find out whether the island strives, or dies.”
To help the island and its animals, please consider donating to this gofundme for the the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park