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How Australia's Animal Hospitals Are Coping With The Bushfire Crisis

As the nation deals with multiple bushfire emergencies, animal rescue groups and hospitals have been working behind the scenes. They're coping, but for some, it's starting to take a toll. 

Every day for the last two weeks, search and rescue teams have been scouring the fire ground in Port Macquarie, on the NSW Mid North Coast, desperately searching for surviving koalas.

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They're no longer a soft grey -- now a coarse brown, their fur sizzled from the heat of inferno. Their paws are burnt black, like charcoal, from climbing down smouldering trees.

Last week, a blazed ripped through the Lake Innes Nature Reserve, home to a colony of up to 600 rare and genetically-diverse koalas. Then, after a brief reprieve, it flared up again on Friday night.

An injured koala is cared for at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. Image: Facebook/Port Macquarie Koala Hospital

Sue Ashton and her team at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital were devastated.

"We had just started going through the areas that we thought were clear, and it's burning again," she told 10 daily.

We are just doing what we need to do but I think it's starting to take its toll.

Caring for wildlife in a bushfire crisis or other natural disaster is a coordinated effort between rescue groups -- ranging from local groups to 'WIRES', the nation's largest rescue charity -- as well as the animal hospitals that take in the sick and injured.

A dehydrated and injured Koala receives treatment at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital after its rescue from a bushfire. Image: Getty

Most of these are not-for-profit groups which rely on volunteers and public donations. Wildlife rehabilitators can access some government funding, however this differs across states and territories.

But the sector faces a sad and confronting reality, few animals who are trapped in a firestorm will make it through an animal hospital's doors.

The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital fears up to 350 koalas have fallen victim to the recent blaze.

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With recent bushfire emergencies spanning NSW, QLD, SA and WA expected to worsen, some groups are more concerned about the long term impacts of ongoing hot and dry conditions that will leave the country's wildlife out to dry.

Here's how the wildlife rescuers plan to cope in the fire crisis.

Where to donate and help wildlife during the bushfire crisis:

New South Wales

Ashton is the president of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. She coordinates a team of trained wildlife carers, including one clinical director and six supervisors -- along with 150 paid volunteers.

Some of them form search and rescue teams -- who are trained by the NSW Rural Fire Service -- while others assist in clinical care or manage supplies and donations.

"When we bring in a koala from the fire zone, we rehydrate it and give it an electrolysis fluid before putting it in an intensive care unit for 24 hours to calm down," Ashton said.

A dehydrated and injured Koala receives treatment at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. Image: Getty

"Then we anesthetise it and examine it all over for burns, bathe its paws and wrap it up in bandages."

The koala is then left for three days and regularly checked. But burns victims can take up to six months to fully recover.

Burn victims can take up to six months to fully recover. Image: Facebook/Port Macquarie Koala Hospital

The hospital currently houses 43 koalas -- 16 of which have been rescued from the fire zone -- the centre has room for "quite a few more". 

"But at some stage, there is going to be a limit to how many we can take," Ashton said, adding hot and dry conditions will delay the process of returning recovered animals to safe, regrown habitats.

"We can't let the koalas out until we know they have food and water. We have to wait for the environment to regenerate," she said. 

Right now, the team is on "autopilot". But as they prepare for "catastrophic" conditions on Tuesday, Ashton is worried about morale.

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"We've been working tirelessly over the last few days, but I think it's starting to take its toll on people," she said.

The fact the fires have reignited has put a blanket of sadness over all of us because we love our wildlife too much.
Search and rescue volunteers scaled the fire zone in Port Macquarie. Image: Port Macquarie Koala Hospital.

Further down south, FAWNA NSW -- or 'For Australian Wildlife Needing Aid' -- looks after an area spanning from Bulahdelah to the northern part of the Kempsey Shire.

Parts of the area have been devastated by bushfires, particularly near Taree.

But contrary to popular belief,  FAWNA President Meredith Ryan said the group has few affected animals in its care.

A dehydrated and injured Koala receives treatment at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. Image: Getty

"They've all been incinerated," she told 10 daily.

Since the end of October, FAWNA has received about 20 wildlife, including bandicoots, wallabies and possums. The group is working in tandem with other services in the area, including the koala hospital.

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Ryan said the team of 180 trained volunteers is "well-versed" to respond to emergencies when they happen.

"We have tremendous capacity to care for multiple numbers at any one time," she said, adding she is more worried about the long term lack of water and food for wildlife. 

"Insects aren't breeding, so the birds don't have their food. Trees aren't flowering with nectar and pollen. These are our bigger problems," Ryan said.

We aren't worried so much about our ability to cope with the wildlife, but with the wildlife's ability to cope with the conditions they're experiencing.
Queensland

The Currumbin Wildlife Hospital is very busy at this time of year, admitting about 54 new patients a day.

Along with the RSCPA Qld Wildlife Hospital, it's one of the main hospitals providing care to wildlife across Queensland.

But few of its patients are coming in as direct victims of the fires currently ravaging the state.

"Sadly, you tend to find the animals do manage to flee or they sadly perish. It’s the odd one that survives that has burns that come into us," Dr Michael Pyne told 10 daily. 

Few animals who are trapped in a firestorm will make it through an animal hospital's doors. Image: AAP

Pyne said he and his team struggle to deal with the influx of animals due to the general effects of hot, dry weather.

"We have been getting a lot of animals coming in that were starving and struggling. That had a far bigger impact on us," he said. 

"We're used to dealing with natural disaster; we're prepared and ready for it.

"My biggest fear is it not raining."

Where to donate and help wildlife during the bushfire crisis:

Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au