Fears for newly-mapped koala populations from Gospers Mountain blaze

Grave fears are being held for newly-mapped koala populations in the Hawkesbury whose habitat has been destroyed by the ever-growing Gospers Mountain bushfire.

Science for Wildlife, a Sydney-based not-for-profit wildlife conservation organisation, has mapped koala distribution around the Colo Heights area since 2014 and studied their ecology.

Map: The map released by Science for Wildlife showing the effects on koala habitat by the Gospers Mountain fire. The red and orange areas are classified as highly suitable and suitable for koalas. Picture: Science for Wildlife.

Map: The map released by Science for Wildlife showing the effects on koala habitat by the Gospers Mountain fire. The red and orange areas are classified as highly suitable and suitable for koalas. Picture: Science for Wildlife.

Executive director Dr Kellie Leigh now fears hundreds of animals could have perished in the Gospers Mountain blaze, as much of the area affected was classified as either highly suitable or suitable for koalas.

"This fire would be burning habitats and killing koalas," she told the Gazette. "They don't do well in fire, they tend to climb higher up the tree, whereas other wildlife can run away. It depends on the fire intensity, I can only hope that in some areas koalas have survived.

"The habitats ranked as highly suitable are those where we either found a relatively high number of koala scats during surveys - [demonstrating] koalas used them a lot - or where the koalas we radio-tracked used that habitat as a core part of their home range, that is they spent a lot of time in it.

"We don't have population estimates yet, it would be in the hundreds. We do know it's a widespread and growing population."

Blaze: Views from Comleroy and Blaxands Ridge Roads at Kurrajong as bushfires continue to burn to the south-west of Kurrajong and Blaxlands Ridge. Picture: Geoff Jones.

Blaze: Views from Comleroy and Blaxands Ridge Roads at Kurrajong as bushfires continue to burn to the south-west of Kurrajong and Blaxlands Ridge. Picture: Geoff Jones.

The highest densities of koalas found by Science for Wildlife were between Bells Line of Road and the Colo River, near Mountain Lagoon and down into the developed area towards Kurrajong, she said.

Among those animals potentially affected was Zeus, a male who was part of the study taken into care and treated for chlamydia.

Zeus' story was featured in the Hawkesbury Gazette in 2016, and Dr Leigh said both he and other koalas that Science for Wildlife members were particularly fond of - Zen, George, Uno, Pine, and Cin - were among those directly in the path of the Gospers Fire as it crossed the Colo River and headed towards Mountain Lagoon.

"[Zeus is] currently under threat from the fire," she said.

Dr Leigh said it was "heartbreaking" to see the fires heading steadily south, and called for more action from the Federal Government in the "unprecedented" conditions.

"It's a frightening fire season, with unprecedented conditions," she said. "It's only going to get worse under climate change - the science is in on that and we need to see some action from our Federal Government.

At risk: Dr Kellie Leigh releases a koala back into the wild. Picture: Robert Carter.

At risk: Dr Kellie Leigh releases a koala back into the wild. Picture: Robert Carter.

"It's heartbreaking to watch this happening and to know we've played a role in it through failing to address what science has been warning us about for years."

But the situation had highlighted a number of areas in which action could be taken immediately, Dr Leigh said.

"These are newly mapped koala populations and we don't have resources to deal with a situation like this," she said.

These are newly mapped koala populations and we don't have resources to deal with a situation like this.

Dr Kellie Leigh

"We want to fund training and koala enclosure costs for wildlife carers in areas we know there are koalas, so there are enough resources to care for koalas after fire.

"We [also] want to work with the Rural Fire Service (RFS), National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and government agencies to plan for protection of koalas, including prescribed burning, back burning and search and rescue for koalas after fire. This is critical under climate change where we expect more frequent and intense fires, we need to deal with the now but also plan for the future."

Science for Wildlife was planning to survey and map koalas "so we know where to search for survivors after bushfire.

"We still need basic knowledge of koala locations, there could be more koalas impacted by bushfires across the World Heritage Area at other sites but we don't know because we haven't surveyed yet," Dr Leigh explained.

Residents living close to known koala populations could put out water drinkers to help them and other animals during drought and extreme heat, she said.

The organisation has started an online donation campaign aiming to raise $20,000 to work with NPWS and RFS to get systems in place to search for koalas after fire, and to examine the feasibility of protecting koalas with prescribed burning.

At risk: Zeus the male koala, pictured while he was in care in 2016. He is one of several koalas Science for Widlife members are fond of who are now at risk. PIcture: Dr Kellie Leigh.

At risk: Zeus the male koala, pictured while he was in care in 2016. He is one of several koalas Science for Widlife members are fond of who are now at risk. PIcture: Dr Kellie Leigh.

"We want to provide funds to pay for training and set up more wildlife carers for koalas and other wildlife. We also want to go in after the fires and see how many survived," Dr Leigh said.

"We want to focus on the long-term picture; while looking after relatively small numbers of koalas in care is essential welfare work and hopefully those individuals will go back out into the wild and contribute to the population, we also want to try to prevent losing hundreds of koalas to fire in future.

"Part of that includes working out where else the koalas are living in the protected area network and prioritising them for management. We can't protect them if we don't know where they are."

To donate to the campaign, visit https://www.givenow.com.au/koalaconservation

Bad conditions

Meanwhile, a Total Fire Ban has again declared for the Hawkesbury today (Tuesday) due to deteriorating conditions.

The Bureau of Meteorology has issued a fire weather warning for the region, with a maximum of 42 degrees expected in Richmond. A change in the afternoon is expected to bring erratic windy conditions, which may adversely affect areas already impacted by bushfires.

Tomorrow's (Wednesday's) temperature is expected to be cooler with a predicted top of 29 degrees.

Two major fires continue to burn in the region, with the Three Mile fire merging with the Wrights Creek fire and the Gospers Mountain fire merging with the Thompsons Creek blaze.

Firefighters were continuing to backburn around the communities of Central Macdonald, east and west of Mountain Lagoon and between Wheelbarrow Ridge Road and the Colo River in the Central Colo Area.

"Fire remains active to the west of Comleroy Road, Kurrajong, east of Newnes and Glen Alice areas," the RFS stated.

A number of road closures are continuing, including the Putty Road between Colo and Colo Heights, Comleroy Road, Kurrajong and Wisemans Ferry Road between the ferry and Mangrove Mountain. Upper Macdonald, Lower Portland, Central Colo, Colo, Upper Colo and Colo Heights, Mountain Lagoon, Blaxlands Ridge East and East Kurrajong residents were being advised to continue monitoring conditions.

Hanging out: A koala in the Blue Mountains. Picture: Jennifer Tobey.

Hanging out: A koala in the Blue Mountains. Picture: Jennifer Tobey.