60 Hours On Burning Kangaroo Island

Our reporter describes the ongoing catastrophe of record bushfires on Australia's wildlife.

3 p.m. (New Zealand time), January 5

This is the day of the tangerine sky. It is midsummer, mid-afternoon, and the sky above Auckland, New Zealand, has turned dark orange, as if in an eclipse. Drivers turn on their headlights. Worried residents call the emergency number to ask what’s happening. Smoke from Australia’s bushfires is drifting across the ocean and turning our own sky fiery. We have seen the headlines: “Australia is burning,” “Australia is on fire,” even, “Australia is committing climate suicide.” We have seen the photos: a fire tornado, evacuated townsfolk sheltering on a beach, kangaroos leaping for their lives, flames turning forests incandescent, cockatoos dropping dead out of scorching skies. And now the disaster is above our heads, eerily present though 1,400 miles away. It used to be that the symbol of climate change in the South Pacific was a drowning atoll; now it’s a burning continent.

On January 9, when this satellite image was recorded, a third of Kangaroo Island had been burned. Hot weather and unfavorable winds that day caused the fires to flare up and drive the fire front eastward, almost to the airport. Nearly half the 1,700-square-mile island has now suffered fire damage.

PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN DAUPHIN, NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY/LANDSAT

Midday, January 9

I board a plane to Adelaide, South Australia, and stumble on an inflight movie miniseries about Chernobyl. I watch it obsessively for the next four hours. Its relevance feels uncanny. A nuclear meltdown in preparation for a climate meltdown, each cataclysm surrounded by its own political ecosystem of deception and denial, promulgated, in the words of Chernobyl’s narrator, by “an entire congregation of obedient fools.” Chernobyl was madness. Climate change is madness. When do we reach a tipping point with this? When do we start to become sane?

11 a.m. (South Australia time), January 9

I walk across the tarmac and feel the dragon’s breath on my neck and scalp. The temperature is 99°F, and in two hours it will reach 106. The sky has the faded look of an atmosphere drained of moisture. A taxi takes me through the city’s outer suburbs into the country. A road sign points to a “bushfire last resort refuge.” The message is no exaggeration. In February 1983, on Ash Wednesday, deadly fires swept across the outskirts of Adelaide and other parts of the states of South Australia and Victoria, destroying thousands of homes, killing hundreds of thousands of sheep and cattle, and taking the lives of 65 people, including 17 firefighters. Black Saturday, in February 2009, was even deadlier, killing 173 people. Some of the individual fires in those events spread at speeds exceeding 70 mph. People driving at the speed limit on freeways watched the fire front pass them. This season’s bushfires have so far burned across 65,000 square miles, an area the size of Florida, destroyed more than 2,200 homes, and killed 28 people. A billion animals may have perished.

A dusty driveway on a parched hillside leads me to the home of the founders of SAVEM (South Australian Veterinary Emergency Management), a volunteer organization formed in the wake of Black Saturday to provide a coordinated response to retrieve, triage, and treat farm animals, pets, and wildlife during an emergency. Veterinarians from local practices are gathering here for a three-day deployment on Kangaroo Island, 70 miles from Adelaide, which has been ravaged since fires spread catastrophically on Friday, January 3.

The fires on Kangaroo Island spread so quickly that even fast-moving kangaroos were caught in the conflagration that has left forests reduced to charred stumps.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER PARKS, AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Emilis Prelgauskas, who handles logistics for the group, greets me at the door with his two greyhounds. He says that what’s been happening on the island, which is about 90 miles long and 55 at its widest point, is unprecedented. “No one expected 30 percent of Kangaroo Island to burn in one go,” he says. “This level of destruction has not been contemplated. We’re talking about a new reality. And if we don’t get significant rain, which we may not get until May, then this fire will continue until May.”

He says that the work the volunteers will be doing is dangerous, complex, and traumatic. “The fire of January 3 may have burned 85 percent of animals on the fire ground—[live]stock and wildlife. Either killed them outright or took them so close to death that the kindest thing you can do is put a bullet through them. And yes, our teams have been using bullets. The truth is that a wild animal that has been traumatized by the fire, traumatized by its injuries—are you going to traumatize it more with human handling? This is about the welfare of the animal, not about making ourselves feel good.”

The team is ready. They're taking a private plane made available by a supporter. They drop me at the airport for my commercial flight.

5:15 p.m., January 9

Oliver Funnell, another SAVEM veterinarian, is booked on the same small turboprop plane. I ask him about the challenges of treating large, wild animals. He says it’s almost impossible to hospitalize and treat an adult kangaroo. They’re too big and too flighty. “They’d probably kill themselves if you tried to contain them, and might kill or injure you as well,” he says.

Koalas have their own challenges. “They’re incredibly fussy and require large amounts of very specific browse,” he says. “What’s more, browse they happily chewed yesterday they may reject today.” Continent-wide, koalas have been among the hardest hit of Australia’s native mammals in the fires because they’re slow moving and eat only eucalyptus leaves, which are filled with aromatic oils, making each tree a fire starter and flamethrower.

We climb out of Adelaide into a smoke bank that lasts all the way to Kangaroo Island. I’ve been told that the January 3 fire was so hot it melted concrete at a luxury lodge, where staff survived by sheltering in a bunker. It caused flakes of granite to peel from the Remarkable Rocks, a tourist attraction in Flinders Chase National Park. That park is now mostly ash. “Pompeii,” one wildlife rescuer calls it. Flinders Chase celebrated its 100th anniversary in October 2019. Some anniversary present.

8 p.m., January 9

A blood-red moon rises through the smoke haze east of Flour Cask Bay, on the south coast of the island. Motel owner John Hofmann and I watch flecks of ash drift past on the breeze. Kangaroos are sipping from water bowls he has set out nearby. They move cautiously, walking in an awkward combination of diminutive elbows and massive hind legs. But when they hop, they’re grace incarnate.

“We may have to evacuate,” Hofmann warns. The fire authorities have issued a “watch and act” notification for this area as winds blow the fire front in our direction

Ninety percent of Kangaroo Island’s timber plantations have been burned since December, including hundreds of acres of highly flammable eucalyptus.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LISA KARRAN

Unbeknown to us, across the world, on American late-night television, Patti Smith reads a poem about “fires raging the Earth” and sings Neil Young’s 50-year-old song “After the Gold Rush,” updating the last line to “Mother Nature on the run in the 21st century.” It could be an anthem for an island on fire.

3:45 a.m., January 10

I am awakened by Hofmann’s footsteps on the veranda. He knocks on the glass door. “Time to go,” he calls. He’s loading a trailer with camping equipment, food, water, torches, a generator. Who knows when we’ll be coming back. I stand with his sister and brother-in-law, the only other guests, facing an orange glow in the sky. It’s very warm, very quiet. The ash has stopped falling. Notifications say that the fire is threatening the airport. The road to Kingscote, the island’s main town of 1,800 people, has been closed. Our part of the island is cut off. We deliberate. Hofmann, a trained firefighter, looks at the wind forecast. It’s still blowing from the west, in our direction, but is predicted to swing south. That will reduce the danger. We have an evacuation route to the coast if the fire flares. Should we stay or go?

I think we go,” Hofmann says. I follow his four-by-four to Penneshaw, the island’s second largest settlement, on the eastern peninsula. We pull into a sportsground and line up with other vehicles and tents. I push the car seat back and try to sleep.

6 a.m., January 10

A flock of shrieking corellas, a loud-mouthed species of cockatoo, land in a nearby tree, ending any prospect of further rest. The road to Kingscote has reopened, so I follow a fleet of emergency rescue vehicles traveling in that direction. I find my way to a café called Cactus, where the servers alternate between taking orders and hugging customers. At times like this, cafés provide as much therapy as they do sustenance. One server tells me she isn’t supposed to be working today, “but when people are coming in who have lost everything, you want to be here.” The editor of the island newspaper arrives and orders breakfast. He’s been working round the clock, keeping the community up to date and positive. “It’s on us, Stan,” she says. “So is the kale smoothie.”

There’s a stream of army reservists, firefighters, farm support people, park rangers, media coming through the doors. I strike up a conversation with a local family and within minutes am taken to their home, where they’re looking after a kangaroo joey and a young brushtailed possum. The possum is in a bird cage. The joey hops around the living room. Robyn Karran steps into the garden to pick roses, which the possum gobbles greedily. Her daughter, Lisa, a wildlife rescuer who is married to the local policeman, shows me photos of animals they’ve helped. She estimates they’re driven 600 miles around the island since the fires began, picking up survivors.

A member of the Australian Defence Force cradles a koala after it was treated for burns on January 14 at a makeshift field hospital in Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park. Half the island’s estimated 50,000 koalas are thought to have died in the fires, and most survivors have burns on the soles of their feet. Veterinary staff treat and bandage the limbs, and the animals are taken to pens where they’ll stay until they heal.
PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER PARKS, AFP/GETTY IMAGES

“There’s not a lot of life out there,” Lisa says. What there is can break your heart—animals frozen in the moment the fire took them, a baby koala still holding a eucalyptus branch, blown out of its tree. “This little guy,” she says, showing me a photo of a kangaroo joey, “was out of the pouch but still suckling on mum. There was no food around. They would have starved to death. I jumped on him and took him back to the car, but found that his feet were burned down to the bone. He wouldn’t have survived. So I had to say goodbye to him. That crushed me.” She left food and water for the mother and took the joey to Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park to be euthanized.

She says that sometimes, as they drive around, they can’t even tell where they are. “It all looks the same. Vaporized.” Normal fires leave tree skeletons standing in the landscape. In some areas, this fire has left little more than matchsticks and ash.

While I’m talking to the Karrans, at a press conference in Kingscote, the island’s mayor, Michael Pengilly, tells reporters there is no connection between the fires and a changing climate.

1 p.m., January 10

I drive west through the town of Parndana to Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, which escaped destruction when Friday’s fires swept through the center of the island. Smoke is still billowing across the highway. Rows of round hay bales in a paddock smolder, some of them reduced to charred lumps. Melted roadside markers bend over like drooping flowers. Road signs are unreadable. A vineyard, every vine, every leaf scorched, a support post still on fire. I want to call someone. “Put it out.” But flare-ups much worse than this have incinerated more than 800 square miles of Kangaroo Island so far.

It’s a miracle that the wildlife park is still intact, the animals alive. Fires raged on three sides but didn’t join up. Staff have converted a dining area into a field hospital, and the SAVEM veterinarians are changing the dressings on koalas’ feet. Three medics to an animal, working steadily through the patients. An anesthetic injection to reduce the handling trauma, then the feet are unwrapped, swabbed, smeared with antiseptic cream, and rebandaged. A saline drip is connected to hydrate the animals, and a painkiller popped into their mouths. New victims arrive in wheelbarrows as the treated koalas are moved to hastily erected pens. There they sit, shell-shocked, on eucalyptus branches. Traumatized, but alive.

7 p.m., January 10

Richard Glatz, an entomologist, inhabits a world of smaller creatures, ones less thought about when disaster strikes. I drive to his home in D’Estrees Bay, which he shares with Janine Mackintosh, an assemblage artist who draws her materials and inspiration from the 800 acres of woodland, heathland, and wetland that surround them on the island’s south coast. She feels fiercely protective toward these natural landscapes.

Today their own home needs protecting. The doors and windows are covered with aluminium insulation, to reflect heat if fire approaches. The previous night, the two had packed their vehicles with their most precious possessions and parked them in a farm field near a dam. Glatz had made sure he had access to the ceiling space in his research hut where he stores tens of thousands of insect specimens, so he could fight a fire if it broke out there.

Normally, the birdsong here would be constant, they say. Now the only sound is an indifferent wind.

He shows me the collection, pulling out glass-topped trays of specimens neatly pinned and labeled, each a work of the entomologist’s art, a meticulous record of life in this place. He points to a moth named after him, Aenigmatinea glatzella, the enigma moth. Its name refers to the puzzling time taxonomists had in figuring out where it fit in the moth lineage. Endemic to the island, it’s so ancient as to be classified in a family by itself.

Gorgeous, much larger eastern bronze azure butterflies are arrayed next to the enigmas. These butterflies lay their eggs on the nests of a single species of ant. When the eggs hatch, the ants appear to be fooled into taking the larvae down into the nest, where they are either fed by the ants, or, it is speculated, eat the ants’ own offspring. The butterfly larvae pupate in the nest, then emerge briefly to mate and start the cycle again. Glatz says that at this time of year the larvae are still underground. Have they survived the broiling heat of the fires?

Glatz picks another insect out of its tray: a green carpenter bee, one of more than a hundred native species of bee on the island and one for which he has a special fondness. Extinct in mainland South Australia and Victoria, it persists in a few sites on Kangaroo Island and in the ranges around Sydney. Metallic green, twice the size of a honeybee, it’s a showy creature with a reclusive lifestyle: It drills into the dead flower stalks of yacca, the iconic Australian grass tree, which looks like a giant green pompom, and into the rotting trunks of old banksia trees to make its nests—hence the name carpenter.

The banksias are crucial, Glatz says. While yaccas recover and flower quickly after a fire, their flower stalks soon disintegrate, and the plants may not flower again for years. The carpenter bees need the longstanding banksias to carry them through multiple seasons. Glatz wants to see if the banksias are still standing after the fires and invites me to join him the next day as he searches for survivors.

8 a.m., January 11

The entomologist, the artist, and the reporter drive westward. We take two vehicles for safety. We pass a flock of dove-grey Cape Barren geese in a paddock. We pass charred beehives. Close to a thousand commercial beehives have been lost on Kangaroo Island. When a hive burns, the beeswax melts, and the honey streams out. One beekeeper found to his dismay that birds called New Holland honeyeaters had come to the river of sweetness, become stuck in the thickening honey, and died.

We come to Church Road—I can just make out the blistered letters on the blackened street sign. But this is not Church Road, this is “desolation row.” Beside the geometrically straight lines of a burned eucalyptus plantation, the ground is scattered with koala bodies. Like pandas, koalas are a global emblem of all that is endearing in the natural world. Their charred, furless bodies lie in the ashes at my feet. According to one of the owners of Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, half the Island’s estimated 50,000 koalas may have succumbed.

Farther up the road, we stop at the property of some of Glatz’s and Mackintosh’s friends. The home is a pile of rubble covered with the twisted iron of the fallen roof. The windows have exploded, blasting glass hundreds of feet away. The roof of a garage on the property has been blown across the road, ending up wrapped around the skeletons of trees. Plastic water tanks have melted like toffee.

This isn’t Mother Nature. This isn’t natural at all. - Pat Hodgens, Wildlife Ecologist

The property next door has fared no better. We see something that touches us deeply. A row of salvaged coffee cups has been set out on a sheet of iron and filled with water. Even in the total loss of their homes, the owners have made sure that there is water for heat-parched animals and birds. Next to what was the house is an orchard enclosed in wire netting to protect the harvest from fruit-loving creatures. The trees—laden with nectarines, apples, plums—are scorched brown, the fruit shrunken but still holding on. As the owners turned away from the ruins, they opened the gate to the orchard so that birds could have the fruit.

We return to our vehicles solemn, distressed, moved by acts of kindness. My companions remark on the silence. Normally, the birdsong here would be constant, they say. Now the only sound is an indifferent wind sighing in the darkened trees.

We drive west to the entrance of Kelly Hill Conservation Area, one of Glatz’s carpenter bee sites, and walk a few hundred yards through an ash landscape, looking for the host trees. But the old banksia trunks have gone. We don’t see a single one. It’s a serious blow: By such deletions species are lost, and ecosystems unravel.

Yet there is life here. The fire has opened the cones of a small shrub, the endemic Kangaroo Island conestick, and they’re spilling white seeds onto the ashy soil. Glatz kneels to pick some up. One of the fears ecologists have is that with a fire of this intensity the seed banks that hold the key to regrowth may be destroyed, heated beyond their tolerance. Veronica Bates, a botanist on the island, tells me that it will take an autumn, winter, and spring before they know which seeds have survived and can form the basis of a vegetation recovery.

That much of Australia’s flora is fire-adapted is common knowledge. What isn’t as widely appreciated is that historical fires typically burned with less ferocious heat. South Australians tell me repeatedly that these latest fires are not comparable. They have arisen in the midst of fire seasons that have increased from six months to nine. They’re more like furnaces than fires. Yes, there will be recovery. But what will be lost? Bates tells me something hard to believe: that farms in the western half of Kangaroo Island were once marginal in winter because they were too wet. That seems a distant memory now. Looking at the stricken landscape at Kelly Hill, I wonder if Glatz’s carpenter bees are just a memory too.

12:50 p.m., January 11

Wildlife ecologist Pat Hodgens takes me into a forest remnant on the north coast, one of the few recorded locations of the Kangaroo Island dunnart, a mouse-size marsupial on the verge of extinction. The species is known from only 13 sites in western Kangaroo Island, Hodgens says, and all of those locations have now been burned, some beyond recognition. This one was lucky. It burned in the December fire, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Hodgens says. The resulting loss of undergrowth meant less fuel was available for ignition by the more intense blaze of January 3, and the site was spared. We’re in ironstone country—the name for the iron-rich soils that cover much of the island. Ironstone is a geological lightning rod, and it was a lightning strike that ignited the fires that so far have burned almost half the island.

I saw the thunderstorm approaching,” he says, “and I thought, Here we go. This could be the end. No one could have predicted what happened last Friday—that every other dunnart site would be fried.”

With so much of the surrounding bush now destroyed, a different pressure has come to bear: predators, especially feral cats, the most severe predators of Kangaroo Island’s native wildlife. “When a predator-naive marsupial goes up against a highly evolved predator like a cat, it doesn’t stand a chance,” Hodgens tells me.

In the coming weeks, a six-foot-high cat-proof fence will be installed around this critical habitat. Meanwhile, Hodgens and his partner, Heidi Groffen, have installed two types of cat trap to give the dunnarts, bandicoots, and other marsupials a chance. We check several cage traps, which Hodgens baits with chicken wings. We find no trapped cats but liberate two goannas. The two-foot-long lizards streak away into what little undergrowth remains. Hodgens shows me a more high-tech device called a Felixer grooming trap, designed to identify a feral cat passing in front of it and shoot a blob of toxic paste onto the animal’s fur. The cat licks the paste and dies.

I follow Hodgens through charred shrubbery where he checks the memory cards of motion-activated trail cameras. He shades a camera screen, and we make out the shape of a dunnart that has snuffled past in the night. This is thrilling news—the species lives. Yet even this relief feels fragile and provisional.

As we drive back to the road, Hodgens voices a frustration. “People often say, ‘The bush always comes back. It will regenerate. Fire’s natural. It’s all good. Mother Nature knows best.’ This isn’t Mother Nature. This isn’t natural at all. The bush doesn’t come back. Superficially, yes, it will look green, it will have flowers and birds, but it might not have dunnarts in it ever again unless we can take care of the remnants we’ve got. Dunnarts need a variety of habitats. They need old growth, they need thick undergrowth, they need a bit of everything. We don’t know if they will recover from this.”

5 p.m., January 11

A concert has been organized to lift the islanders’ spirits. One singer steps to the microphone and says, “My name’s Craig. I was born here. I’ve lost everything. Here’s a song about that.”

He's followed by Glatz, who sings Ben Folds's song "Smoke" and, true to his profession, one about a housefly and a typewriter. At one point during the evening, the audience chants in unison: "Bring back the bush."

I meet the couple with the orchard in Church Road. Tomorrow they’re taking out food pellets and hay for the wallabies. “We’ve still got survivors coming out of the bush,” they say. “They’re our priority.”

8:30 a.m., January 12

On my way to the airport, I visit a clifftop archaeological site called Red Banks, one of dozens of sites around the island where the first people left evidence of an occupation that stretches back more than 10,000 years. I would like to ask those people about how to live endure, how to survive on this island, on this Earth. I think they would start by saying that humans are not separate from nature—that land, waters, people, plants, animals are one living tissue.

Much of Flinders Chase National Park, which celebrated its hundredth anniversary last October, has been reduced to ash. For kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, bandicoots, and other endemic creatures, the extreme loss of habitat has placed their survival at risk. Here on Kangaroo Island, park staff, emergency responders, animal rescuers, and residents are providing hay, food, and water for the stricken animals.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LISA MAREE WILLIAMS, GETTY IMAGES

At my feet, half-inch-long ants are busy around the entrance to their nest. I don’t know the temperament of these insects, so I keep my distance. In the Aboriginal world, they are my kin, and I am their custodians. As Aboriginal writer Tyson Yunkaporta puts it: “This is why we’re here. We look after things on the earth and in the sky and the places in between.”

It strikes me that pretty much everyone I’ve met on Kangaroo Island is “looking after things”—from firefighters to café servers, koala rescuers to dunnart ecologists, dedicated vets to devastated homeowners who give water and fruit to wildlife. How do we begin to do this when it’s not an emergency? Or when it’s a permanent emergency? The past decade, 2010 to 2019, has been the planet’s hottest on record, and the thermometer’s not going down.

11:45 a.m., January 12

At the departure gate for my flight to Auckland, I see a TV screen playing an interview with Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister. The interviewer has just challenged him with a comment from former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull that "if ever there was a crisis not to waste, it is this one." Morrison dismisses the comment, stressing the importance of a strong economy and "Australia’s broader national interests"—such as being the world's leading exporter of coal. I remark to passengers watching next to me about the logic of needing to make lots of money from climate-damaging industries to fund the recovery that results from climate-damaging industries.

12:15 p.m., January 12

I watch the final episode of Chernobyl on the flight home. The narrator confronts the seeming futility of his profession as a scientist. “To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for the truth we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not.” Isn’t this the story of climate science?

Some people—including even former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—think Chernobyl was the tipping point that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, overturning an establishment based on secrets and lies. What will be the tipping point that awakens humanity to its present condition, ending the denial of the climate crisis? Chernobyl caused the Soviet people to question the political reality of their times. Their government could not, would not protect them. They came to see the system as irredeemable. How many fires does it take to get to that point?

 

Kennedy Warne co-founded New Zealand Geographic in 1988 and has written for National Geographic since 2000.

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