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Rescued koalas named after American firefighters who died fighting Australia's wildfires

Bushfires shine light on koalas' plight
Bushfires turn world's attention to plight of koalas in Australia 05:47

Three koalas rescued during Australia's wildfire crisis have been named for American firefighters who were tragically killed in the region last week. The animals were named by the Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust Koala Sanctuary and are now being temporarily cared for by the Australian National University (ANU). 

According to ANU, the three Snowy Mountain Koalas have been named Ian, Paul and Rick for Captain Ian McBeth, first officer Paul Clyde Hudson and flight engineer Rick DeMorgan Jr. The three brave firefighters and U.S. military veterans were killed in a plane crash while battling the bushfires in New South Wales, the same region where the koalas were found. 

"We have 11 koalas at ANU that have come in from the various fire grounds in the region," Dr. Karen Ford, an ANU researcher and expert in koala nutrition, said in a university statement. "They just keep arriving. There is nowhere else that has the facilities to hold these animals or this many at the moment."

"These injured animals have been very stressed," rescuers said of the koalas.  Ben Keogh / ANU

Ford is running the "five-star koala hotel" on the Canberra campus and plans to keep the koalas there for a few weeks before they can hopefully be returned to the wild. 

"There are a couple with burn injuries and the rest have come from completely burnt habitat and they are quite skinny," Ford said. "These injured animals have been very stressed. They have gone through a bushfire but they are doing well. They are eating well and have calmed down a lot." 

The three firefighters were in a C-130 Hercules aerial water tanker, dropping fire retardant to help out the blaze in New South Wales when the crash occurred

The U.S. firefighters were a well-known and experienced crew contracted to help fight the bushfires in Australia this season. More than 100 American firefighters have been helping out in the country in recent weeks. 

Australia's capital region declared a state of emergency on Friday. It's the first state of emergency in the country's capital, Canberra, in over a decade. This year's unprecedented fires have claimed at least 33 lives since September, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and burned more than 26.2 million acres, according to The Associated Press.

A supplied undated combined image shows Captain Ian H. McBeth, First Officer Paul Clyde Hudson and Flight Engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr.
From left to right: Captain Ian H. McBeth, first officer Paul Clyde Hudson and flight engineer Rick A. DeMorgan Jr., who died in an air tanker crash while battling bushfires in Australia. AAP Image supplied by Coulson Aviation via Reuters

Tens of thousands of koalas are feared dead in the bushfires, which have claimed the lives of more than one billion animals, severely impacting the continent's biodiversity. 

Ford warned that while it may be tempting to help koalas affected by the fires, people should contact local wildlife agencies rather than trying to catch, feed, water or care for them themselves. 

"You need to know something about koalas to feed them, otherwise you can unintentionally starve them," Ford said. "Koalas also don't drink a lot of water and if a koala takes water they may be stressed. If you are not aware of their habits you might not even realise that you are not feeding them appropriately."

Koalas have been a central focus of relief efforts as the blaze spreads across the region. They are known to breed so slowly that it could take 100 years for the population to rebuild — so saving just one is crucial.

"I am really pleased we can help these koalas otherwise I don't know where they would have gone," Ford said. 

See a full list of organizations supporting evacuees, firefighters and wildlife here

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