As her first full-time gig out of university last year, Dr Caitlin McFadden landed a job on the South Coast of New South Wales, in a paradise that was about to go up in flames. By Rob Johnson
New Year’s Eve, 2019, Milton, 220kms south of Sydney. It was a brilliant blue morning, the first one for ages. The smoke seemed to have finally cleared from a huge bushfire that had been burning in the nearby national park for months. “It just felt like it was going to be a good day,” Dr Caitlin McFadden thought to herself as she made her way into work at Milton Village Vet.
In two hours a colleague would receive a text message warning to shelter in place, because fire was coming. In three hours, as the sky blurred into a dirty pink haze, she spoke to her family who said their house was surrounded by flames. The roads out of the area where they lived were cut. Within the next hour, during an exploratory laparotomy on a small dog, the power went out in the clinic, and the phones went dead.
What happened in the hours and weeks that followed taught her (sometimes brutal) lessons that six years of study never could.
Born to be a vet
Dr McFadden grew up in Ulladulla. “I was always that weird kid collecting butterflies and going to the zoo all the time,” she says. The area is home to a wonderfully diverse range of native wildlife—a haven for a child fascinated by animals. Veterinary science was a natural career choice.
She enrolled at Charles Sturt University, specifically because of the regional setting. “I don’t think I could have handled moving to the city, really.” By August last year, she had graduated and was ready to work when a job came up at Milton. She started there just a few weeks before the fires sparked. By November, they had taken hold on the south coast.
By the end of December, the fires had crept up the coast. As she headed into work, Dr McFadden noticed about 20 fire trucks speeding down the highway towards the fires to the south. “And then about 10 o’clock in the morning, we all got a text message saying, Fisherman’s Paradise, shelter in place.”
As the smoke got thicker as the morning progressed, Dr McFadden called her family, and that’s when they told her the flames had reached Lake Conjola.
“And we had a little dog in there that we were about to perform an ex lap on for a suspected foreign body,” she recalls. “And that’s when the power went out and the phones went dead. We had no idea what was going on, but we just had to put that aside and deal with this little one, because he was pretty sick.”
They had a full afternoon of consults booked, but no way of contacting people to cancel. Not that it mattered—no-one was turning up. “So we just said, ‘All right, we may as well just go home and shut early, once everyone was dealt with for the afternoon.”
The terrible toll on wildlife
As so often happens in catastrophes, the event was just the start. “When the road first opened and the phones were back up online, we started getting a few calls from people at Lake Conjola about burnt kangaroos,” she says. Along with a nurse, she headed out to see what could be done.
“The first roo that we had a look at, he was a big 70-kilogramme kangaroo with a burnt tail and burnt feet. And we just couldn’t physically do anything for him—he would have killed us trying. And I think that was the case of a lot of roos. A lot of these roos were suffering for weeks before they could be put down.”
That first day they drove out, there were bodies of wildlife all along the sides of the road. It was eerily silent, because all the birds had gone. Local residents told them stories of kangaroos hopping down the road on fire.
In the coming days, local residents, firefighters and ambulance teams started turning up with severely injured wildlife. “There was a possum that some ambulance drivers brought in that I was taking home every night, just to care for him because he had almost full body burns. The burns didn’t look that deep at first. But one of the hardest things I found after learning how to treat burns is they look great for the first seven to 10 days. But then they start to sort of slough off, and you realise that they’re full thickness down to the bone. So I was looking after this possum, 24/7 for probably 10 days, and then realised I had to put him down.”
There were many lessons to be learnt from the brutality of the experience—about the best and kindest way to treat wildlife, and how to manage that process personally. “I know they teach you at uni, you need to mentally take a step back when you get home,” she says. “But with the fires, because it was just multiple things a day, probably putting down animals almost daily for the first week, it was hard to step back and do that. Especially when your community was a little bit broken at the same time.”
But there were positive lessons as well.
“What was amazing was that everyone was pitching in and doing little bits that they could. I think it made us stronger as a community. You know, I was talking to someone the other day about the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown. But the isolation and the craziness that we went through with the fires, I think it made us deal with this coronavirus isolation a bit better. Because we’d already sort of gone through something similar.”