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Revealed: Widespread species devastation following ‘unprecedented’ fires

Hanging on: Koalas in NSW just lost one-fifth of their best habitat - and that's not excluding the impacts of heatwaves and drought.

Hanging on: Koalas in NSW just lost one-fifth of their best habitat – and that’s not excluding the impacts of heatwaves and drought. Credit:Cole Bennetts

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About two-thirds of the 251 parks and reserves managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Services were at least half burnt. Some 55 of the total were at least 99 per cent affected.

The longer document, yet to be made public, estimated one-quarter of all koala habitat in eastern NSW was affected by fires. That toll includes almost 1.75 million hectares – or about one-fifth – of forests hosting “high or very high suitability koala habitat”.

Other fauna, though, fared worse.

“We looked at 300 of NSW’s most vulnerable listed fauna species,” the document states. “For some species such as the long-footed potoroo, almost every species sighting ever recorded is within the area affected by fire.”

Other species, such as the Hastings River mouse and the brush-tailed rock-wallaby, also had their known ranges burnt out.

Experts warn Australian forests may take more than 100 years to recover all the carbon spewed out from bushfires this summer - but some wildlife may never recover.

Experts warn Australian forests may take more than 100 years to recover all the carbon spewed out from bushfires this summer – but some wildlife may never recover.Credit:Kate Geraghty

NSW’s plants, though, may count the most species pushed to the brink.

Among 651 of the most vulnerable flora species, 26 had their ranges entirely burnt while another 30 were located in areas 99 per cent affected.

The mapping techniques used to make the assessment may underestimate the impacts. The apparent inclusion of sightings more than a couple of decades old implies a greater abundance of rare species than is actually the case prior to the fires, one ecologist told the Sun-Herald.

Matt Kean, Energy and Environment minister, said departmental scientists worked with the Rural Fire Service and the University of NSW to develop satellite analysis techniques for the rapid assessment of affected vegetation.

Thousands of kilograms of carrots and sweet potato were delivered to endangered brush-tailed rock wallabies in NSW as the fires abated.

Thousands of kilograms of carrots and sweet potato were delivered to endangered brush-tailed rock wallabies in NSW as the fires abated.

“The early stages of the NSW government‘s wildlife response to the bushfires is underway, including food drops, water, pest control and population surveys being the most urgent needs,” Mr Kean said, adding he plans to release a broader wildlife recovery plan “to protect our threatened species and unburnt areas of habitat”.

Kate Washington, Labor’s environment spokeswoman, said the Victorian Andrews government had already developed an outline of how it would tackle the impact on wildlife, something largely absent from the NSW documents.

“NSW urgently needs a plan that protects what remains and spells out a path for recovery including key actions, funding and who’s responsible,” Ms Washington said.

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“It’s becoming more obvious every day that the Berejiklian Government does not have the will or ability to undertake the task, because they have sacked so many ecologists, biologists and conservationist from the NPWS and the [former] Office of Environment and Heritage.”

Suzanne Milthorpe, a campaign manager for the Wilderness Society, said the loss of “irreplaceable areas like the Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Area is a tragedy on a global scale”.

“Australia’s wildlife was already pushed to breaking point by decades of nonexistent national environmental leadership and an increasing unwillingness by Australia’s politicians and corporations to deal with the reality of wide-spread natural destruction,” she said.

“The same laws and policies that have failed wildlife over decades and done little to mitigate the climate crisis can’t be the system that is the solution.”

Separately, in a sign of the dangers ahead, DPI’s fisheries unit said hundreds of thousands of fish had died in the Macleay River after rains washed ash and other debris into waterways.

Northern Territory Fire and Rescue fire fighter Luke Ezzy contains a blaze beside the Princes Highway near Nowra in NSW.

Northern Territory Fire and Rescue fire fighter Luke Ezzy contains a blaze beside the Princes Highway near Nowra in NSW. Credit:Kate Geraghty

“The suspected cause of the incident is poor water quality leading to low dissolved oxygen,” a spokesperson said.

Rainfall events are adding ash from the extensive bushfires throughout the region into local catchments, as well as other organic matter and sediment. This can cause rapid drops to oxygen levels in the water.

The main species hit include Australian bass, freshwater mullet and eel-tailed catfish, with more fishkills possible as rains return.

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