Alana Dowdell was visiting family in Arlington when the fires broke out.
Dowdell, the daughter of Norbert and Beverly Cent and a resident of Australia, could only watch as the country she has called home for more than 15 years was ravaged by some of the worst bushfires in decades.
According to reports, at least 28 people have died nationwide, and in the state of New South Wales alone, more than 3,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged.
Dowdell, her husband, Mark, and children, Lauren, 11, and Cooper, 7, live in Adelaide, a city of more than 1 million people, in the neighboring state of South Australia. Though their home is not in danger, areas around them, including the outer metro area of grasslands and hills, where wine production and tourism are major industries, have seen significant damage.
“In the week of Christmas, there were significant fires in the hills, destroying 86 homes and a large portion of the wine-producing area, so industry, livestock and wildlife have been affected,” Dowdell said in an email to the Arlington Citizen.
Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination and wildlife park a few hours south of Adelaide, has also been damaged.
“It is estimated that nearly half of the island has burned,” Dowdell said. “The national park there has been razed, including important species of wildlife.”
Dowdell and her family visited the island last year to celebrate her birthday.
“I can't imagine how the little villages and pristine natural habitats will rebuild,” she said.
Volunteering to help
After returning to home, Dowdell, a veterinarian, answered a call to volunteer with Adelaide Koala Rescue, which is operating a 24-hour triage center in a local elementary school gym. There are about 100 koalas in care at any one time.
“It was pretty easy to decide to help,” she said. “Everyone wants to do something and generally we feel fairly powerless over the situation.”
Dowdell spends a few hours a week volunteering. Her employer was initially involved in helping organize the triage center.
“There are literally hundreds of people volunteering to rescue and release, clean cages and work as veterinary staff,” she said. “I am just a tiny part of that big effort.”
Though she is a veterinarian, Dowdell had never worked with koalas before.
“I had never picked one up before my first shift,” she said. “Many of them are quite gentle, but still get stressed with handling, so we sedate most of them if we need to do much to them.”
Many of the koalas can be hand-fed supplements and are given medications with oral syringes fairly easily, Dowdell said. Some even appreciate a scratch on the head or back. But, she said, it's important to remember that these are wild animals.
“The first koala I picked up taught me very quickly that they are strong little buggers and will use their back claws to tear you to shreds if you let them,” she said. “Some of them will bite, too. The angry ones remind me of fired up 25-pound cats with claws of a hawk and teeth of a beaver.”
Many of the koalas that were burned before Dowdell returned home are now ready to be released.
“The challenge is finding appropriate bushland that they can be released into as so much as been destroyed,” she said.
Those koalas that have survived the fires and not been burned can face other issues, including heat stress, starvation and dehydration. Adelaide has seen temperatures of 110 degrees or higher and koalas don't have the food and water sources they once did, Dowdell said.
“Some of these guys also have burns that have healed in the wild, but may be underweight because they haven't eaten well while in pain from those burns,” she said. “Many have eye problems from the heat or infection. Koalas are sensitive to kidney damage from dehydration, so kidney failure is a challenge for us, too.”
Different from other fires
The bushfires have made news around the world.
But Dowdell was quick to dispel one report: Arson is not a major cause.
“That has been misrepresented,” she said. “Some fires have been maliciously set, but they are in the vast minority.”
Hazard reduction burns are done as often as possible, she said, but the “safe” season to do that has gotten shorter each year.
“No one wants to be responsible for a planned burn getting out of control and destroying homes, which has happened,” Dowdell said. “The extreme heat and drought over the last few years has just made it unsafe to do planned burns.”
The bushfires are different from other wildfires, Dowdell said, because of the eucalyptus trees, which contained a lot of volatile oil that will burn at extremely high temperatures and even cause trees to explode rather than burn.
“The ground will stay hot for days so wildlife and livestock that cross previously burned areas will suffer burned feet,” she said. “And because of the high heat of our fires, even areas that have been burned — back-burned or bushfire-burned — can even burn a second time.”
How to help
Adelaide Koala Rescue is a small organization operating from small donations from the general public and utilizing volunteer staff. Donations can be made on its website, akr.org.au.
“Financial donations are greatly appreciated and wisely utilized,” Dowdell said.
Dowdell also suggested donations be made to BlazeAid, a group helping farmers rebuild fences and structures that have been destroyed by the fires, in addition to supporting rural communities during this emotionally exhausting time.
“Many have been facing severe drought for several years, and are already at the end of their tethers,” she said.
After the fires, some producers, vets and trained marksmen have been forced to shoot livestock in pastures if their injuries are severe.
“There aren't many fences so herding livestock up in order to assess each animal is nearly impossible,” Dowdell said.
Donations to BlazeAid can be made via PayPal at blazeaid.com.au/how-donate/#4.