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Australian Bushfire Rescue: Behind the Scenes


The wildfires of the “black summer” were a game-changer for Australia, and they had a large emotional toll on those affected. Go behind the scenes with the filmmakers of Australian Bushfire Rescue, as they discuss the challenges of filming and the heart-wrenching stories they encountered.


♪♪ NARRATOR: A wildfire catastrophe engulfs Australia on a scale never before seen.

FIREMAN: Get out of there, mate!

[ Sirens wailing ] NARRATOR: Caught in its path, vulnerable native wildlife.

Ordinary people become bushfire heroes, in a desperate bid to save lives.

VET NURSE: 459... NARRATOR: And extraordinary relationships are forged... REID: Are you ready to meet Wanda?

NARRATOR: human and animal fates collide.

But a crisis with human origins compels us to find innovative solutions.

DR. CRISTESCU: You ready?

Go find.

He's indicated. FITZGERALD: There.

NARRATOR: What lessons can we learn from Australia's Black Summer, and how can we safeguard our precious wildlife in an even hotter future?

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Animals calling ] NARRATOR: Something strange has been happening on the fringes of the Australian bush.

Koalas get most of their moisture from eucalypt leaves.

They're typically shy and avoid humans.

So when people start filming them coming down from their trees... ...and seeking out humans, desperately thirsty for water... WOMAN: Oh, sweetheart, you're so thirsty.

MAN: This is not something you normally see.

NARRATOR:'s a clear sign something is drastically wrong.

♪♪ On the back of successive dry years, 2019 is the driest on record.

And the season ahead is set to be one of the hottest.

It will be remembered as the Black Summer.

It starts on the east coast in early spring.

By the time summer arrives, more than 100 separate fires are tearing across the landscape... MAN: The scale of this bushfire emergency is hard to get your head around.

NARRATOR: ...some of them joining up to become megafires, so large they create their own weather and become virtually unstoppable.

WOMAN: Sydney is tonight surrounded by a ring of fires.

WOMAN #2: Day turned to night and hell came to Bilpin.

MAN #2: Nothing short of just utter devastation.

NARRATOR: These megafires advance faster and burn with a greater ferocity than the fires of the past.

Firefighters work desperately to save homes and human lives.

But forests, and the life within them, are consumed and incinerated.

It's a fire season unlike any in modern history.

♪♪ On a stretch of coastline busy with holiday makers, the Currowan fire is sparked by a single lightning strike, but it grows into a monster spanning more than 60 miles.

FIREMAN: ...95, we are retreating... NARRATOR: Its speed is so extreme,firefighters are caught unaware.

FIREMAN: Come on, it's gone further up there.

FIREMAN #2: We're getting out. FIREMAN #3: Quickly!

FIREMAN #4: Righto.

NARRATOR: In its midst, a kangaroo sanctuary has miraculously survived.

VET: It's alright. It's okay.

NARRATOR: A mobile vet care unit has arrived to treat casualties from the surrounding forest.

VET NURSE: I've got a patient for you, Cath.

NARRATOR: Everything from an abandoned baby swamp wallaby to one of Australia's most feared reptiles, a deadly tiger snake.

VET NURSE: Come on. Come on.

NARRATOR: A 10-month-old joey, who's been named Sage, needs her bandages changed daily while her badly burnt feet recover.

VET NURSE: Sorry. VET: That nail down there.

VET NURSE: He's already lost that nail.

VET: Yeah it came off.

VET NURSE: If they lose the nails on those -- their big middle toes... VET: This one.

VET NURSE: ...then they can't really hop properly.

VET: They can't really do what they need to do.

NARRATOR: The next arrival to the clinic is a juvenile rainbow lorikeet.

ERIKA: So I'm assuming that he's been in a hollow.

Mum and Dad haven't come back.

And he's at some point decided to abandon the nest.

NARRATOR: They're known for their boisterous personalities, but this one seems uncharacteristically subdued.

ERIKA: I don't know if you can say a bird's traumatized, but I haven't seen a bird come in like this before.

VET: Hello, little one. Hi.

ERIKA:My biggest question is the smoke and how we know what internal damage has been done?


VET: And he doesn't smell sour or anything.

NARRATOR: The bird seems physically healthy, but at this age, still needs care and company.

VET: I definitely would try and buddy him up as soon as, you know, you can find one of similar -- similar age.

ERIKA: Yeah, yep. I'll put the call out.

[ Laughs ] We'll get him a friend.

VET: Yeah. There you go little one.


NARRATOR: Outside, there's a new patient... VET: Hello! Oh, how gorgeous.

So we've got... NARRATOR: ...a baby bare-nosed wombat.

VET: How long have you had this one?

MORGAN: I just picked it up. VET: Just picked it up?

MORGAN: Just half an hour ago.

I think she's been with her deceased mother, because she smells really bad.

NARRATOR: She's been named Wanda, after being found wandering along a road all by herself.

DR. SLADAKOVIC: She's still very much like she should be with her mum, right, for a really long time still to come, yeah.

MORGAN: Yes. Yeah.

Yeah, so I imagine that her mother has been burned in the fires.

She's just gone back to the burrow and she's probably succumbed to her injuries.

NARRATOR: At around 12 months of age, Wanda would normally still be suckling and would stay at her mother's side for another year.

VET: This is just an assessment 'cause it was picked up on the road as an orphan.

And so does it need treatment?

DR. SLADAKOVIC: She's pretty yucky around the nose.

NARRATOR: Wanda has burns to her airways which will need urgent treatment.

And without her mother and the safety of their burrow, she'll need ongoing care.

DR. SLADAKOVIC: Oh, she's so cute.

NARRATOR: Just 85 miles furthersouth, a double tragedy unfolds.

The fires have swept through a koala sanctuary painstakingly established over decades.

FITZGERALD: Yeah, I think it's going to be thin like all of the other ones.

And if you got the towel we could drop the towel over its head.

NARRATOR: Land clearing has threatened the survival of the iconic species.

But this refuge was home to one of the few populations that had been increasing in numbers.

The founder of the sanctuary, James Fitzgerald, is now searching for the survivors.

FITZGERALD: They were lucky to survive the fire, but luck's running out.

♪♪ ♪♪ NARRATOR: Koalas like this one have survived the sudden inferno.

But if they're not already suffering life-threatening burns, with the few remaining pockets of green leaves now dying, they'll soon face starvation.

♪♪ ♪♪ FITZGERALD: I mean, they all need a full vet check, and some of them we haven't been able to save.

This one, it does feel very thin but we'll get it to the vet and get it properly assessed.

Keep it quiet.


Very good.

NARRATOR: But koalas haven't been the only victims here.

FITZGERALD: I'm also a volunteer Rural Fire Service.

And I was out fighting that fire from the 30th, and just 'cause of the wind, I was worried.

♪♪ My Group Captain was coming in a fire truck.

So yeah, and you could see he had tears in his eyes and other -- the other guys did.

Just over the hill there, the three American pilots died.

NARRATOR: A scorch mark, fragmented pieces of wreckage leading into the bush -- all that is left of the C-130 tanker.

NARRATOR: Ian McBeth, Rick DeMorgan, and Paul Hudson had come from the US to support Australian firefighters.

They'd been battling to save the koala sanctuary, dumping fire-retardant at low altitude in gusty winds.

FITZGERALD: You know, we really appreciate what they did here, helping.

To have --to have them die here is just... I... you know, it's terrible.

NARRATOR: For James, their sacrifice has compounded the moral urgency of saving the koalas.

FITZGERALD: I mean, there's just nothing you can really do for the families, but I guess what we're trying to just do is say we're never going to forget them.

♪♪ NARRATOR: But smoke and flames aren't the only killers this Black Summer.

On the continent's southern edge, in the city of Adelaide, a colony of grey headed flying foxes are becoming restless.

♪♪ Wildlife veterinary scientist Wayne Boardman is increasingly concerned by the prolonged high temperatures.

WAYNE: I've become particularly fond of the species, having researched them for several years.

They suffer from what we call heat stress events.

When the temperature starts to get to around about 38 degrees centigrade, they start to flap their wings to try and get a bit of evaporative cooling.

NARRATOR: As the mercury pushes higher, they seek out water in a behavior known as dipping.

WAYNE: They fly along the water, touch the water on the chest, and then fly up into a tree, hang upside down, and the water drops into their mouth and gives them a little bit of a cooling opportunity, as well.

♪♪ NARRATOR: But temperatures over 105 degrees can be deadly.

♪♪ In the week before Christmas, a four-day heatwave peaks at 113.

And 10,000 bats, many of them juveniles, fall from their roosts.

WAYNE: We have lost, we think, approximately 50% of the Adelaide population.

It's a tragic event.

NARRATOR: But not all the fallen bats perish.

♪♪ Wayne and his wife Katrina rescue as many as they can.

WAYNE: It's quite hard but it's healing really well actually.


WAYNE: God, it's left it quite a bit of a scar, hasn't it?


WAYNE: I might just put some Betadine on it just to make sure it's okay.

NARRATOR: They're now surrogate parents to 118 young bats.

KATRINA: I've been working with the flying foxes for about 30 years now, and I've never seen anything like this.

I'm cutting around about 27 kilos a night of fruit, mainly apples, 'cause apples seems to be the fruit that's more palatable to them.

♪♪ Don't need to bite me.

♪♪ Some of them are hand raised, so they are quite interested in your hair.

But they're just interested animals, they're very intrigued and curious, yeah.


You want my glasses?

NARRATOR: Fear of bats has intensified since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

But left alone, flying foxes pose little risk to humans.

And they're important pollinators and propagators of the native trees they feed on.

KATRINA: Their normal diet is native fruits like figs and also gum blossom.

NARRATOR: So their eventual release won't just help rebuild their decimated colony, they'll also play a critical role in the rejuvenation of the forests.

KATRINA: The 100 we have in care at the moment, they're probably the last of the generation that's just been born.

We just hope that they'll survive.

♪♪ NARRATOR: Just southwest of Adelaide, the extreme Black Summer heat is also being felt on Australia's third largest island.

♪♪ Cut off from the mainland around 10,000 years ago by rising sea levels, Kangaroo Island is now a veritable ark for dozens of endangered subspecies found nowhere else.

♪♪ More recently, it's become a safe haven for koalas, isolated from disease that has affected mainland populations.

♪♪ It's also home to a very particular parrot -- the endangered Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo.

They're among the most diet-specialized birds in the world, feasting on just one species of tree -- the drooping sheoak.

They use their powerful claws and specialized beaks to prise protein-rich kernels from the sheoak's tough seed cases.

♪♪ The birds are almost as fussy about where to nest, preferring eucalypt hollows at just the right height and diameter.

But competition can be fierce.

To help, conservationists have erected artificial nest boxes, growing the endangered population from a low of 160 to almost 400.

Or at least that was the case before the fires.

[ Thunder rumbling ] With dry lightning strikes providing the initial sparks... ...strong winds propel walls of flame across the island.

MAN: Fire front after fire front raging out of control.

This remains a dangerous situation.

An emergency warning is in place for central Kangaroo Island.

NARRATOR: It takes just two weeks to reduce nearly half the island to ash.

♪♪ ♪♪ Wildlife filmmaker Beau Eastman has been documenting the glossy black cockatoos in the island's north.

♪♪ He's searching for any signs of hope.

EASTMAN: This is the nature reserve where I filmed the glossy cockatoos last time before the fires, and this is one of the prime habitats for these birds here on the island.

And when I come out here,the best way to find these birds is by listening to the crunching on the sheoak seeds.

♪♪ I'm looking around and all the sheoak seeds, they're just absolutely toasted.

What it sounds like now is just absolute silence.

It's not a good sound at all.

♪♪ NARRATOR: The inferno has wiped out this entire feeding area.

♪♪ It's this unprecedented intensity and scale that has made the Black Summer so deadly.

♪♪ Australia's wildlife has evolved to survive fires of the past.

Koalas have perhaps the simplest strategy.

They climb higher, into the treetops, with all but the most ferocious fires sparing the canopy.

The echidna, a peculiar egg-laying mammal, takes the opposite approach, digging deep into the earth right in the path of the fire, and slowing its metabolism for a hibernation-like slumber until the danger has passed.

Kangaroos take a different tack again.

They're the race-cars of the Australian bush, engineered with powerful rear legs, a counter-balancing tail, and elastic tendons that store and release the energy of every hop.

This sophisticated machinery allows them to briefly reachspeeds of over 35 miles an hour.

But rather than waste valuable energy outrunning the flames, they search out the thinnest part of the fire front and leap right through, to the burnt ground on the other side.

♪♪ All these adaptations are finely tuned to the fire regime that has dominated Australia for tens of thousands of years.

Frequent fires predominantly burning at lower intensities and leaving unburnt patches of refuge.

But with the climate warming and drying, we're facing a frightening new normal... ...megafires that advance so rapidly that the fastest can't flee, and that are more likely to consume the treetops... ...leaving tree-dwelling mammals nowhere to hide.

[ Koala crying ] ♪♪ [ Monitor beeping ] Which is why on Kangaroo Island, koalas outnumber all other patients arriving at an emergency field hospital.

VET NURSE: 459, female, no baby.

VET: We'll give them a clean, we'll probably bandage them.

VET #2: We'll put her on and then we'll fold that over.

VET NURSE: What a good girl.

DR. McLELLAND: The new admissions at the moment, we're getting around about 20 a day.

My understanding is that we've got 60 to 70 koalas in hospital that have been previously admitted and are under ongoing treatment.

♪♪ NARRATOR: The influx is so great, the Defence Force has been called in.

HOAD: If there's any need like this, Defence will mobilize vets to assist.

We do our best with little babies like this.

She was really feisty 'cause she's in a lot of pain.

DR. McLELLAND: So this is a younger female koala.

Her burns aren't too bad, so giving her some bandages across those areas.

We'll just have to see how she goes over the next few days, make sure she's eating and maintains her hydration.

It really is a long-term effort, and these koalas, even after they get over their burns, are going to need a lot of care before they can go back out into the wild.

♪♪ NARRATOR: An army of volunteers bring a steady stream of casualties to the triage tent.

KARRAN: Hello buddy. Come on.

NARRATOR: Island local Lisa Karran has brought in dozens already.



NARRATOR: And she's heading straight back out again.

This time, it's to a eucalypt plantation nestled among the island's wilderness areas once supporting hundreds of koalas.

KARRAN: We couldn't just sitand watch things sort of unfold.

Decided to get onto the fire grounds and see what we could do, just anything we could to help the wildlife.

Ooh, kids are out! That's a good sign!

♪♪ [ Koala growls ] Whoa hello, shh.

♪♪ Whoa! Good boy.

Oh, you've burnt bum, darling.

That's a good boy. You're only little, hey!

BOY: Mum, there's another one.

KARRAN: Normally you would never find a koala at the bottom of a tree unless it was sick or severely injured.

They don't like to be on the ground.

[ Koala growling ] NARRATOR: Suffering burns and dehydration, they lack even the strength to climb.

KARRAN: They just sit there. [ Laughs ] And we've found ones that have been -- that have died within a day, so you sort of think, 'Oh, I was a little bit too late.'

But yeah,there's so much ground to cover, it's just -- it's incredible how much has gone.

♪♪ NARRATOR: Just as they are about to leave, a distressing sight.

KARRAN: If she doesn't move then there's something wrong.

♪♪ NARRATOR: Two female kangaroos, both with joeys.

♪♪ The mothers have carried them in their pouches, protecting them from the flames... ...and are still suckling, giving up every last drop of sustenance.

But their own feet have been charred to the bone from the incredible heat of the burnt ground.

KARRAN: It's a strange feeling.

You've got something so injured, yet it's still trying to protect its young, and she did a really good job of looking after them during the fires.

NARRATOR: The adult kangaroos won't survive their horrific injuries.

♪♪ Euthanasia is the only humane solution... ...leaving the two joeys bushfire orphans.

KARRAN: Sam from the wildlife park was called to come and help us, so he got a tranquilizer gun.

Spent a while trying to dart the two younger joeys.

MITCHELL: Obviously when they've been through what they've beenthrough and we can't catch them, you know there's no food around here for them, so they're just slowly going to die of starvation.

So we're just going to give them the best chance that we can give them.

♪♪ NARRATOR: Still a long way from weaning, they'll need months of nursing, but at least now, they have a chance.

KARRAN: I couldn't bear to leave them behind.

MITCHELL: No definitely, I mean, it should be fine.

KARRAN: Thank you.

[ Sighs ] You'll be okay.

♪♪ NARRATOR: Just across the island, Beau has received some exciting news -- a possible sighting of glossy black cockatoos.

EASTMAN: And these people have said, 'We've seen 12 birds fly over the property,' which to me, that is unbelievable.

So I cannot wait to get out there to see if it's true.

NARRATOR: He's hoping to capture them on film, proof that some at least have survived.

♪♪ [ Birds squawking ] EASTMAN: [ Laughs ] This is really good.

NARRATOR: There they are -- the unmistakable brilliant splash of red under the tail.

EASTMAN: I'd literally had no hope in me.

This is completely -- this has completely changed my mind.

NARRATOR: This flock of around 20 has found safety and sustenance, a grove of sheoak inan unburnt corner of the island.

EASTMAN: You can see that there's plenty of sheoak seeds on those trees, you can see those little spots from a distance.

That's what they're feeding on.

NARRATOR: The population is still far from secure.

EASTMAN: The fires have pretty much taken out the whole western end of the island, and what's left is just this on the eastern side of the island.

NARRATOR: But at least it's a glimmer of hope.

♪♪ [ Thunder rumbling ] It's long-overdue rain that eventually defeats the fires.

In Australia's eastern states alone, the flames have consumed an area greater than the size of Indiana.

More than 20% of all forests have been lost.

Survivors will find little to eat.

♪♪ On Kangaroo Island, a family of hungry roos search for patches of unburnt foliage, or new shoots pushing through the ash.

Even a dead leaf is worth trying.

But on the Karran family property, the two orphan joeys are waking up in a very different world.

KARRAN: Good morning, yous two.

NARRATOR: They've been named Ellie and Eden, and now they have three other orphan siblings.

KARRAN: We have, Tulsa and Dawson, the old married couple. They hate being apart, and they are constantly hugging and kissing.

And we also got GG, who can't go outside at the moment, and he sleeps on his own little spot in the lounge room, as well.

Do you want to get up?

NARRATOR: Lisa's children are helping raise the mob.

KARRAN: For kids, you know, under a normal circumstance, you'd be quite worried.

What they've seen is horrific, as well.

So they've grown to appreciate exactly what's gone on on the island, what the animals have suffered.

If we hadn't have done it, I think we would have struggled to cope with the enormity of the disaster.

NARRATOR: The young roos seem to be fitting in well with their adoptive family.

♪♪ But the ultimate goal is for them to one day return to the wild.

KARRAN: We don't want them to get bored, and we want to keep them stimulated.

So adding toys and carrots hanging from the enclosure, it helps them to play and to have a bit of fun, 'cause joeys normally, play a lot with -- with their mums and each other, and it's really important for the development to be able to do that.

They'll be able to function as normal kangaroos and go back into the wild, which is a really beautiful thing to be able to see.

NARRATOR: Back on Australia's east coast, it's been a month since fires devastated James' wildlife sanctuary.

If there are any remaining koalas here, they'll be on the brink of starvation, and almost impossible to find.

So James has called in an expert.

FITZGERALD: Bear's a koala detection dog.

He's got a lot of high energy and he really likes finding koalas.

DR. CRISTESCU: Hey. Boom, baby, you ready?

Go find!

FITZGERALD: He can pick up, you know, very fine scent of a koala.

NARRATOR: Detection dogscan locate koalas up to 20 times faster than human searchers.

It's a method pioneered by ecologist and trainer Dr. Romane Cristescu.

Dr. CRISTESCU: Bear is trained on koala fur.

So basically he does a search, and then when he smells that scent, he drops.

And then I catch up with him, and he's -- he's usually keep going until the next patch of scent, and so hopefully by the end of that trail, we'll find a koala.

NARRATOR: But there's no knowing if the trail he's following today will lead to a live koala.

DR. CRISTESCU: I think I'm finishing with that patch.

Do you want to keep moving to the next one?

FITZGERALD: Any ideas where we're going next?

DR. CRISTESCU: I reckon the hill.

James, he's indicated.

FITZGERALD: Ah, there. DR. CRISTESCU: Oh, yeah.

Excellent. Good boy, Bear!

Good boy!

NARRATOR: Bear's sensitive nose has located another survivor who can now be saved from inevitable starvation.

♪♪ The rescued koalas are being cared for at the Australian National University.

But even here, what to eat is a challenge.

Koala nutrition expert Dr. Karen Ford has the unenviable task of serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner to some of Australia's pickiest eaters.

DR. FORD: They'll grab a branch and just basically give it a smell.

If they don't like it, they'll just drop it and look at you, going, 'Where's the proper food?

Give me something else.'

NARRATOR: Every one of her guests is extremely limited in exactly which eucalypt leaves they can safely consume.

DR. FORD: He's definitely eatensome of that as well, so I guess that maybe's just a one though.

ASSISTANT: Alright, just a one.

DR. FORD: We perceive them as being fussy, but it's actually because they can detect the nutritional and toxin composition of the leaves.

So if we give them something and they seem to be being fussy, it probably means we've actually given them something they can't eat.

NARRATOR: Each morning, Karen has to head into the bush to hunt for just the right leaves.

DR. FORD: Most of these trees are scribbly gums.

These are one of the favorites of the koalas to eat.

Unfortunately, it's getting a little bit hard for me to find scribbly gum to feed them at the moment because a lot of the trees around here burnt in the fires, so I'm just kind of picking trees along the edge of the fire line that still have some leaves left on them.

NARRATOR: But if eucalypt leaves are so toxic, how is it that koalas can eat them at all?

DR. FORD: When they first start feeding on eucalypt leaves, they eat this really disgusting, runny poo from their mums called pap, and that inoculates their gut with some of the bacteria that are required in order to digest the eucalypt leaves.

So yeah, they get it from their mums, right -- right from the start.

NARRATOR: From an early age, each koala's gut flora is being programmed to detoxify the eucalypt leaves from their local area.

DR. FORD: We really don't want to upset the gut flora and the enzymes that they use to metabolize the toxins, because otherwise, if we put them back out in that environment, we might find that we've disrupted that balance so much that they actually can't survive on those leaves anymore.

♪♪ ♪♪ NARRATOR: Wanda, the baby wombat orphaned by the fires, has found a new home in the suburbs of Sydney.

REID: Hello, girl.

NARRATOR: She's being looked after by a volunteer carer, Tracey Reid.

Her burnt airways have recovered.

[ Scale beeps ] REID: 5.55.

NARRATOR: She's putting on weight... ...and settling right in.

REID: Wanda!

I thought she'd be more stand-offish, a lot more frightened.

You rascal. Come on.

She just bonded very quickly.

She was beautiful.

NARRATOR: In the absence of their natural mothers, young wombats will bond with human carers in a process known as imprinting.

REID: They're just like a human toddler really.

They've got their own personalities, they get overtired, they get cranky, they want their bottle.

They just don't cry as much, which is lovely.

Good girl. Are you hungry?

She always likes to hold your finger or your hand.

With all my animals that I've ever had, there's always been a moment within probably the first couple of days, normally during feeding, where they just kind of look at you and you realize that they've lost everything and you're it.

Okay, you're done.

NARRATOR: But if Wanda is to one day survive in the wild, Tracey needs to break the human connection.

Today is the first step on that long road.

She's about to be introducedto another bushfire orphan, Ben.

REID: Are you ready to meet Wanda?

She's going to be your new girl.


♪♪ NARRATOR: But there's no guarantee they'll get along.

♪♪ ♪♪ After a brief moment of hesitation... REID: Look, here's Ben.

NARRATOR: ...Wanda seems to welcome her new companion.

♪♪ REID: I'm very pleased.

They're really good, they'll be good mates together now.

NARRATOR: By socializing with Ben, Wanda will gradually become more independent of Tracey, and a little closer to returning to nature.

♪♪ REID: Come on.

NARRATOR: But for Tracey, there's now twice as much work... ...and twice as much mischief.

REID: Looking after the wombats and trying to do work and raise a family at the same time, it's a definite juggle.

NARRATOR: And Wombat teeth, designed for munching tough native grasses, never stop growing, making them terrible house guests.

REID: They have destroyed a door, they've worked on the leather couch and taken a corner off that.

We've had to put up three baby gates.

They have peed in a lot of corners.

NARRATOR: Terrible, but also adorable.

♪♪ Volunteer carers can only save so many animals.

Scaling up our response to meet the magnitude of the crisis will take new levels of resourcing and innovation.

Even more so when it comes to isolated and inaccessible country.

On the eastern edge of Australia's Great Dividing Range, the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park is a maze of deep gorges and jagged ridgelines.

Brush tailed rock wallabies, with thickly padded paws for cushioning and long tails for balance, have made these craggy outcrops their homes.

They've waited out the wildfires in cool, rocky caves.

But emerged to find their precious foraging grounds on the slopes below now a barren wasteland.

Already endangered, this could be the end for the wallabies.

Enter Operation Sweet Potato... audacious plan by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service to save the hungry marsupials.

♪♪ Thousands of pounds of moisture-rich carrots and sweet potatoes tumble from the sky.

♪♪ It's an expensive exercise, but the only way to sustain the species till the vegetation returns.

♪♪ Australia already has the highest mammal extinction rate of any country, and the Black Summer has pushed even more vulnerable species to the brink.

[ Flying foxes squawking ] The flying fox deaths in Adelaide have been mirrored inother colonies around Australia.

Preserving these important forest pollinators is going to require more than just rescuing the fallen.

Doctor Wayne Boardman is testing an idea that might just have saved the 10,000 flying foxes.

WAYNE: So what we're doing is we're using a household mister system.

You know, it's quite a cheap system, and then putting it as high as we can in the tree so that we can get this misting effect where the flying foxes are, which will hopefully reduce the temperature in that area.

That's looking great, John.

That's fantastic.

We've got these three sensors in the Botanic Park and the new sensorthat we've put up for the trial, all at 17 degrees centigrade.

So this is the one that we are looking at today.

Okay, John, you can turn it on now.

♪♪ Oh, it's a fine mist, isn't it?

That's good to see.

NARRATOR: The question is, will it work?

WAYNE: Have you had a look, John?

Yeah, come and have a look?

So look, the temperature's gone down three degrees in comparison to the other sensors in the park.

It's even over sort of 15 minutes, which is quite amazing.

So it worked, it was fantastic.

I'm quite surprised how effective those misters have been, even on a cool day like today, so I'm hopeful that in the summer when we put it out, you're going to get more of an effect.

And that might well be the difference between life and death for a flying fox.

NARRATOR: Successful trials like this one open the way for scaling up the system.

And because flying foxes congregate in such large colonies, thousands could be protected at low cost here in Adelaide and around Australia.

♪♪ But sometimes human efforts to help wildlife can also succumb to fire.

On Kangaroo Island, many of the nest boxes critical to the glossy black cockatoos' revival have been destroyed.

Conservationists are racing to rebuild them, but with the breeding season in full swing, surviving nest boxes are in high demand.

The cockatoos mate for life, producing just one chick every second year.

This pair needs a home for their future family.

But galahs compete with the glossy black cockatoos for nesting sites, and now they're also eyeing up the empty box.

It's a standoff.

Neither party is willing to make the first move... ...until persistence eventually pays off for the glossy black cockatoos.

For this breeding season at least, they have a nest.

♪♪ But until we turn climate change around, more Black Summers are inevitable.

♪♪ [ Siren wailing ] Every year, Australia battles the bushfires on all fronts and with all its might, but is now losing the war.

Ensuring our wildlife survives requires a complete rethink.

Many experts are calling for a holistic approach to managing bushland and the life it supports.

It's an idea that's thousands of years old.

BARBER: [ Chanting in Aboriginal language ] For Aboriginal people, fire is seen very much as an ally, as a necessity, as part of our survival.

It has kept us warm, it has cooked our food, it has helped us in making our artifacts.

It's part of our ceremonies.

At a cultural level, it's a ridiculous notion to think that you would take on fire in a fight.

Tom, just that other spot there.

And you guys help your mum, go one -- one go the other side of your mum.

NARRATOR: Once a fire fighter, Den Barber now teaches the indigenous land management practices of his ancestors.

BARBER: We need to look after our parent trees, 'cause they're very important.

So a good method is to come close to the base, the idea being that this is a single ignition point, and rather than have the intensity of the heat, of a line of heat running into the base of this tree, right, coming from this way, we're lighting from the base and the heat is going to move away from it.

We can do spot, spot, spot, and spot on this corner.

Away yous go.

NARRATOR: Cultural burning clears away the dead and dry undergrowth that could fuel a deadly inferno in the height of summer.

By burning slowly and at the optimal time for each specific ecosystem, the fire spreads gently, preserving healthy trees and allowing animals of all sizes to escape.

BARBER: It's about knowing the trees.

It's about knowing what animals inhabit that particular area, what's nesting.

If for example, we had burnt boxwood country, which is, you know, the next system across, and then we'd come over to gum tree country maybe a month or two later.

It'll only run into those that you've just previously burnt, and it'll go out because there's no fuel for it to burn.

NARRATOR: The mosaic of old and recent burns fosters a more diverse understory and leaves refuges for animal inhabitants.

BARBER: Country is not just about, you know, the mountains and the hills and the rivers and the landscape.

Country, when we talk about country, we talk about everything in it, from the trees right down to those plants, of course all the bugs, the snakes, everything has its place and its purpose, and that includes us.

Just up and around to the right, boys.

NARRATOR: It's an approach that's already working.

In Australia's top end, over the last 15 years, cultural burning has reduced the area destroyed by wildfires by close to 50%. Faced with a volatile future, we'll need to draw on all our human ingenuity, from the latest science to ancient wisdom.

♪♪ Many of the koalas rescued by James and Bear are now healthy, but they'll be staying in care a little longer until their forest homes are ready to support them.

REID: Excuse me.

NARRATOR: Wanda and Ben are moving into a wombat halfway house.

REID: They will actually be able to learn how to dig a burrow a lot deeper, a lot further, their muscle strength will really build up.

If we can get them strong enough, successfully releasing them back out into the wild, it's so important for the species.

KATRINA: it's like my last goodbye.

NARRATOR: Katrina's young flying foxes are finally ready to return to their colony.

KATRINA: It is, they're my babies.

ASSISTANT: It's okay.

KATRINA: Just got to get on with it.

Got to get them out there. ASSISTANT: It's a good thing.

KATRINA: I know it's a good thing.

♪♪ NARRATOR: On Kangaroo Island, Ellie and Eden will need hand feeding until they're fully weaned.

But the koalas Lisa rescued are being gradually released into patches of unburnt forest.

KARRAN: It's really exciting to know that they've made it through the entire fire.

And then to be able to be set free to where they belong, it's amazing.

MITCHELL: This is always the best part.

Straight up the tree.

KARRAN: Look at her go.

NARRATOR: Every single survivor is hope for the future of their kind.

But their destiny is now tied to ours.

The only way to avoid more Black Summers, for the sake of all life on Earth, is our species taking action.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪


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