Wildlife toll mounts in Australian fires
SYDNEY, Australia -- The bush fires that have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres forest in southeast Australia are taking a huge toll on the country's native wildlife, National Parks officials say.
Among the victims hit hardest is one of Australia's most endearing symbols -- the koala.
Officials say the fires raging across the state of New South Wales have killed and injured thousands of the furry marsupials.
Other animals hit by the blazes include countless kangaroos, possums, birds and reptiles. Rescue centers report receiving hundreds of injured animals but many are so badly burned they have to be destroyed.
The koala's favorite food is eucalyptus, but the tree's high oil content makes the eucalyptus vulnerable to fire -- leaving the slow-moving animals with little time to escape.
"What they would do is climb to the tops of trees and tuck themselves into a ball, covering their sensitive parts such as their nose, ears and eyes," John Callaghan, chief ecologist of the Australian Koala Foundation told the Associated Press.
Even if they manage to survive, wildlife officials say many animals often end up with severe burns to their feet and noses as well as respiratory problems caused by smoke inhalation.
They say the fires are likely to have inflicted heavy losses on the fragile koala population which may take 15 years to recover.
Fourteen days after the state's fire crisis began more than 100 fires are continuing to burn across New South Wales.
Police say they believe more than half of the fires were started deliberately.
To date, they say, 23 suspected arsonists -- or "firebugs" -- have been arrested, including one nine-year old boy.
So far no human death or injuries have been reported, but more than 170 homes have been destroyed and vast areas of land scorched.
Over the weekend the more than 10,000 firefighters battling the blazes have enjoyed a brief respite thanks to more favorable weather conditions enabling them concentrate on building firebreaks in an effort to contain the blazes.
"They have been working through the night and working through the day to strengthen containment lines around the fires," said Cameron Wade of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
"It is hard, arduous work."
Worse to come
However, forecasters are warning that temperatures will rise again next week along with dry gusty winds that will help to fuel the fires.
At present the biggest single blaze is racing uncontrolled through a national park near the tiny town of Colo Heights, about 40 miles northwest of Sydney.
Residents were being ordered to leave their homes as a precaution amid fears that the fire might merge with others burning nearby.
Another large fire was in the Blue Mountains 50 miles west of Sydney, threatening houses and roaring up steep hillsides.
Witnesses said flames have climbed high into eucalyptus trees, sometimes more than 100 feet above the ground.
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