Bundling 15 wombats into three cars as a bushfire threatened an Adelaide Hills wildlife sanctuary was a nervous moment for the centre’s boss, Brigitte Stevens, but it was the 72 others she had to leave behind she feared for most.

Key points:

  • 15 rescued and sick wombats had to be evacuated from a sanctuary on Sunday
  • The Wombat Awareness Organisation had nowhere to take the wombats as temperatures remained above 40C
  • Injured possums were taken to a farm rescue centre during the Cherry Gardens bushfire

The Wombat Awareness Organisation founding director said the sanctuary’s 50-hectare Flaxley property was in the CFS emergency zone after the Cherry Gardens bushfire ignited on Sunday afternoon.

“We were starting to get covered in ash, starting to get burnt leaves falling on the property, and we made the decision to leave because we didn’t want to wait until the last minute,” Ms Stevens said.

With three vehicles and drivers available, staff and volunteers lifted 15 critical-care wombats — the heaviest weighing more than 30 kilograms — into their cars and evacuated.

“They were in blankets, and up my top, and basically slept the whole time,” Ms Stevens said.

The view of the Cherry Gardens fire from the Wombat Awareness Organisation as they evacuated.(Supplied: Brigitte Stevens)

Animals left behind

Ms Stevens said some of the burrows on the property were six metres deep, deep enough to survive the bushfire — although a fierce bushfire would likely suck the oxygen from out of the ground.


This has been the case for other native animals injured in the fire, including possums taken to Minton Farm Animal Rescue at Cherry Gardens with burnt feet.

Minton Farm started accepting animals on Sunday even as smoke was billowing nearby.


Nowhere to go

Nearly 30 kilometres away at Flaxley, however, the 15 critical-care wombats in three cars were looking for a safe destination.

Among the mob were animals rescued from drought, wombats suffering from a lung abscess and pneumonia, and several orphans.

Ms Stevens considered Wallis Cinema at Mount Barker, which had opened its doors to people and pets as an air-conditioned sanctuary, but it was a no-go for wombats.

“Because of the heat, and because of wombat sensitivity to heat, we needed somewhere with air conditioners and there was literally nowhere for us to go, so we drove around in our air-conditioned cars,” Ms Stevens said.


They eventually went back to their property at midnight where, with extra volunteers, they assembled more of the sanctuary’s 87 wombats and waited to see if they would need to flee once more.

‘We were shaking in our boots’

In late 2019, when the Cudlee Creek bushfire threatened, the group had to round up 51 wombats before waiting to see if they should evacuate.

“We were literally shaking in our boots because we knew we couldn’t get them all out, and we couldn’t decide who we were going to leave behind,” Ms Stevens said.

It prompted them to build a fire bunker on the property, but Ms Stevens said it would only be used as a last resort.

“So we decided it was best to pack those babies up and move.”


Call for council-backed fire shelter

“It [the Cherry Gardens fire] has given us such a fright,” Ms Stevens said.

Ms Stevens said the organisation now planned to call local governments to arrange leasing a location to rehome native animals when necessary during the bushfire season.

“Not just for us, but as a wildlife evacuation centre,” she said.

The not-for-profit group is also planning a fundraiser to buy an evacuation vehicle.

As of this afternoon, the wombat sanctuary appears to be safe from the latest bushfire threat.

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Buildings destroyed by fire in the Adelaide Hills.