Hundreds of koalas are threatened to burn in a growing fire on Australia's east coast, wildlife advocates said. "I think this is just a national tragedy that we potentially have lost an enormous population of animals in the past 24 hours".
"Crunching the numbers based on koala survey work of the whole LGA (local government area) - it is looking like conservatively based on a 60% mortality that 350 plus koalas have died in the last three days in this fire", the hospital added.
"It's a known koala breeding area and we know from our research there's probably hundreds of koalas in there", Sue Ashton, president of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, said by phone.
The out-of-control bushfire reportedly started following a lightning strike near Port Macquarie.
"A lot of the koalas are being mixed and cross-bred now.so to lose a large part of that population is very devastating".
"So often the flames will just go over the top and singe the outside, but with really intense fires it can burn them alive".
Rescuers said the deaths were particularly tragic as the koalas were a diverse breed, with one expert calling it a "national tragedy".
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Koalas are among the most common fatalities of wildfire.
But the Australian chapter of Worldwide Fund of Nature (WWF) reported a year ago that there is a much smaller population now, with only 20,000 koalas left in New South Wales.
Staff from the Koala Hospital still cannot access the area to assess the damage but they believe that the population could take decades to recover.
The fire triggered an emergency warning on Tuesday, but early on Wednesday had been downgraded to advice level as conditions eased. It has now burnt more than 2,600 hectares of bushland and is continuing to spread, the Rural Fire Service said on Thursday.
"The winds are pushing it down along the coast, which will keep happening as long as the fire is burning".
NSW Health reminded people that children, older adults and people with heart and lung conditions were most susceptible to the effects of air pollution and excessive smoke. But if the fire intensifies and consume the entire tree, it is the end for the koalas.
While there are no total fire bans in place for Thursday the greater Hunter, greater Sydney, Illawarra/Shoalhaven, far South Coast, Southern Ranges and Central Ranges areas are under very high fire danger.
It comes after Will Pucovski was also given time away from Australia's squad last summer to deal with well-being matters. Ben Oliver, the head of Australia's national teams, said: "The well-being of our players and staff is paramount".
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