Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on the road to recovery after devastating bushfire

Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was one of several iconic Kangaroo Island destinations destroyed in the summer's bushfires.

Co-owner Jim Geddes is hoping to rebuild once his insurance claim is sorted out and has been overseeing the recovery effort since the fire tore through on the afternoon of January 3, 2020.

The fire burned through the 5000-acre property, destroying the original homestead, visitor centre, manager's house and staff flats. Only the work sheds survived.

Meanwhile down at Hanson Bay on the coast, only one building of Mr Geddes' holiday cabins survived and the adjacent settlement of shacks was also destroyed by the fire.

"We have been focussing on the wildlife but once we have settled and know where we stand with insurance, we will have the guidance to continue on to the next stage," Mr Geddes said.

"We will rebuild but we are using this opportunity to try and learn from previous mistakes and make it better."

He always thought the open paddocks would have been enough to protect the sanctuary from fire, but he acknowledges the old homestead had always been vulnerable.

There was evidence that a fire went through the property before, probably the same fire that burned nearby Flinders Chase in the early 50s.

Jim Geddes interview

But this time, the wildlife sanctuary located just off South Coast road after the fires was like a bomb hit.

The radiant heat from the neighbouring timber plantations was enough to incinerate kangaroos in open paddocks.

Staff stayed on the property until just after 2pm when they realised the situation was dire, fleeing eastward.

"One thing I would note is that it is testament to good planning and management that we did not lose anyone in this area," Mr Geddes said.

"We had 200 people in this area that day at the various lodges and caravan park but they all survived because there was an early and orderly evacuation."

Mr Geddes was away at the time of the fires at his other home in Georgia, USA, but quickly returned and has not left since.

The Australian Army and volunteers arrived in January to help clean up the extensive fencing around and within the sanctuary.

The Army collecting dead wildlife at Hanson Bay. Photo ADF

The Army collecting dead wildlife at Hanson Bay. Photo ADF

An estimated 700 dead kangaroos, wallabies and koalas were collected and buried in a large pit.

Over the 22 years he owned the property, Mr Geddes was proud to have built a haven for wildlife where visitors could come and be guaranteed to see wildlife, including koala avenue.

It is unclear how many of these old blue and sugar gums can be saved but an arborist has advised to leave them standing for as long as possible to give them a chance.

The Army bulldozer pulled down one of the largest trees, Tree No. 1, at the start of the avenue.

Only the second owner of the property, the trees were planted and the homestead built by Island pioneer Kaye Gibbs, who purchased the land from the State in 1960.

Mr Geddes immediate plans are to rebuild a new feral-proof fencing enclosure from the remnants of the previous 250-acre enclosure.

Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife and other conservation groups will continue to work with the sanctuary, protecting species such as dunnarts and bandicoots.

Mr Geddes and his staff fed wildlife for about 13 weeks until the spring rains brought on enough vegetation by April.

The RSPCA of South Australia also had bird feeding stations at sanctuary, but these were being scaled back.

Regarding koalas, Mr Geddes has been concerned about population numbers, believing numbers were growing exponentially in the timber plantations to well above the 50,000 cited by the Government.

Before the fires there would be 100 or more koalas on the property every day for visitors to view.

The good news is that it seems at least some have survived and he has counted up to 45 on the property on one day, but spread over a larger area.

"It's incredible how many survived and how any could have survived that day amazes me," he said.

There had also been regular sightings of glossy black cockatoos at the sheaok trees he planted more than 10 years ago.

"They didn't use them before the fire so its personally rewarding for me that after all these years that effort is paying off."

South coast tourism

Elsewhere on the south coast of Kangaroo Island there were signs that tourism was slowly opening on the day I toured on May 15.

The visitor centre at the Seal Bay national park also opened the same day, but other south coast attractions such as Kelly Hill caves and Flinders Chase itself remained closed.

Michelle Peacock and Verity at the Vivonne Bay General Store with a legendary lamb burger.

Michelle Peacock and Verity at the Vivonne Bay General Store with a legendary lamb burger.

Michelle Peacock at the Vivonne Bay General Store said it had been very quiet over the last two months because of the coronavirus, but that locals had been coming in regularly.

In what could be the first whale sighting of the year for Kangaroo Island, a whale was sighted at the Point Ellen jetty the day before.

This story Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on the road to recovery first appeared on The Islander.