Sydney, Australia – Vickii Lett has been a volunteer wildlife carer in New South Wales (NSW) for 32 years.
While she says her work can sometimes be heartbreaking, this year she has witnessed Australia’s wildlife being wiped out on an unprecedented scale by fires that continue to rage across the country.
“The scope of these fires is something we’ve never experienced before,” said Lett, whose work with the Australian wildlife rescue group, WIRES, often involves searching for survivors amid the ashes.
“It’s heartbreaking to see those injured animals. Many of them have to be destroyed, others, maybe you see the shell of a body but it’s basically just a shape in the ash.”
Since country-wide fires first flared up unseasonably early in September, hundreds of homes have been lost, more than five million hectares (12.4 million acres) of bush and farmland have been scorched, and at least 24 people have been killed.
Ecologists from the University of Sydney estimate almost half a billion mammals, birds and reptiles have died since the fires began.
As another heatwave sweeps across the country, the fires are showing no sign of abating and experts fear there may not be enough habitat or numbers left for some species to recover.
Australia’s hottest day ever
The animals Lett cares for include koalas, wallabies, kangaroos and various species of possums.
While rehabilitation can take months, releasing them back into their natural habitat requires that habitat to exist.
Right now it is burning, Lett said, and with the scale of this year’s fires, it is unclear how long it will take to rejuvenate and for release to be possible.
The fires have also caused a drop in bird, rodent and insect populations.
“When that happens, then, of course, that’s going to affect the larger ecosystem, because that’s the building blocks for a whole community,” Lett told Al Jazeera, adding that everything has a role in nature from breaking things down, being eaten by other animals, or spreading seeds.
“We just cannot minimise the effects of losing those smaller species.”
Kangaroos that survived a bushfire graze for food at Wollemi National Park in New South Wales in November [Jeremy Piper/EPA]
Bats are also in danger, not only from fires and habitat loss, but soaring temperatures.
WIRES Flying Fox coordinator Storm Standford estimated that about 50 percent of this year’s infant grey-headed flying foxes have died.
“For the past six weeks, what we’re seeing is mass abandonment of young, and that’s odd,” Standford told Al Jazeera, as two baby flying foxes grappled noisily for her attention. “Ecologically it’s really not clear what is going on for them.”
In some areas, wildlife carers are seeing an increase of up to 200 or 300 percent of dead or abandoned infants, Standford said.
The grey-headed flying fox is listed as a threatened species by the Australian government.
As long-distance pollinators that carry seeds across the landscape, they are crucial for the survival and regeneration of native forests.
‘All-consuming and continuous’
While fires are a frequent occurrence in many areas of the country, this year the fires are hotter, more frequent and sweeping through areas that do not normally burn.