Nova Scotia

What a Truro woman is doing to help badly burned koalas in Australia

Amber Lilly says nursing Australia's iconic creatures back to health is just one of the challenges rescuers face. An estimated 30 per cent of koala habitat has been destroyed by the raging bush fires.

Koalas are being given liquids and special mittens to treat burns to their hands and feet

Amber Lilly moved to Australia in 2018, and now works with a non-profit organization that's caring for koalas that have been injured during the country's worst fire season on record. (Jo Holmquest)

A Truro, N.S., woman who's caring for badly burned koalas in Australia says nursing the iconic creatures back to health is just one of the challenges rescuers face.

An estimated 30 per cent of the marsupials' habitat has been destroyed by raging bush fires during the country's worst fire season on record.

Amber Lilly, who works with Port Stephens Koalas in New South Wales, worries the koalas she's helping won't have a home to return to.

"Because the areas that are burning are known as ... very successful koala breeding grounds, to know that they're gone and that we've lost up to a third of the koala population, is pretty bad," Lilly told CBC's Mainstreet.

Lilly said koalas arriving at the non-profit organization have severe burns on their hands and feet from clinging to burning trees.

"Over time, these radiant burns make appearances and two months later, you can see that there's some burns that you didn't even notice before," Lilly said. "And then often at that point they will crash and you'll lose them."

Port Stephens Koalas received seven koalas rescued from the fire-ravaged mid-north coast near Port Macquarie and Taree. Four of them have since died.

Volunteers in Taree rescued so many koalas that they couldn't care for them all, and brought seven to Port Stephens Koalas, where Lilly works. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

The three that are left — Char, Smoulder and Flash — have been given special mittens filled with a cooling ointment to treat the burns on their tiny hands and feet.

They're also given liquids to help with dehydration and a veterinarian removes burned skin so that healthy skin can grow in its place.

"It's pretty intense," said Lilly, who's been living in Port Stephens with her husband and three young sons since September 2018.

"I think everybody knows that burns are some of the most traumatic injuries that somebody or even an animal can have."

The more than 200 fires burning across Australia have killed at least 19 people, charred about five million hectares of land, and forced more than 1,400 people out of their homes.

Lilly said on Friday that her family is safe, but their small town, located on a peninsula about 200 kilometres northeast of Sydney, is surrounded by massive fires to the north and south.

"Basically one little flame and high winds and the heat and you've got an out-of-control fire," she said. "So it's burning really hot and really fast."

Where will Char go?

Char, one of the three remaining koalas at Port Stephens Koalas, is improving and has been moved to a rehabilitation area outside that has trees for him to climb.

Once he can climb and find food on his own, he can be released, Lilly said. But given the state of his habitat, she doesn't know where he'll go.

Koalas are territorial and solitary and have "a very strong hierarchy out in the wild," Lilly said. (Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

She said koalas are territorial, solitary and have "a very strong hierarchy out in the wild."

"So you can't just go and place a koala in any eucalyptus forest," Lilly said.

This year's fires could spell disaster for the struggling population of koalas left in Australia, with some advocates warning they're "functionally extinct," although not everyone agrees with that assessment.

The plight of the animals has been widely shared on social media, with people posting images and video of rescued koalas guzzling water.

Lilly has received special training from the fire service to go in after the fires to search for injured wildlife. They're known as "black walks." (Submitted by Amber Lilly)

Lilly has a master's degree in animal science, and never expected to be caring for one of the most famous creatures from her adopted home . But after admiring koalas in her own backyard, she knew she wanted to help.

"It is sort of a desperate situation and I feel like if I can help in any way, I want to," she said.

Officials are warning people that this weekend's forecast of high winds and hot temperatures could force the fires to spread even further.

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With files from CBC's Mainstreet

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