“We had a plan of attack, we had a heap of water here, hessian sacks, buckets; any time there was a flame that took up we were just onto it.”
Mr Staples said that, in the weeks leading up to New Year’s Eve, the zoo had consulted with the Rural Fire Service and told authorities of its plan to stay and defend the property. It was expected as part of the plan that “if needed, they would send resources to us”, he said.
But as the fire ripped through Mogo, that’s not how it transpired.
“It was frightening, I had to make two triple zero calls to tell them it was bad and it was getting on top of us.”
A spokesman for the RFS said a local group captain visited the zoo on the morning of December 31 and “considered the zoo to be defendable” without RFS support.
The fact that the zoo survived the fire without damage or destruction of its outbuildings “shows the assessment … to be correct”.
“As the fire front progressed throughout the morning, fire crews were actively engaged in the protection of human life and firefighter safety, and due to the sheer size and localised impact of the fire front, NSW RFS crews were unable to get to all properties as the fire impacted,” the spokesman said.
Mr Staples said he was not attributing blame to the RFS, which had volunteer crews battling “horrendous” bushfires threatening lives and properties across large sections of the NSW South Coast that day.
But he did question why the state did not have more resources ready to deploy, given the severe weather forecast and large active fires in the region.
“I would have presumed that such a huge asset to the region [the zoo] would have been able to draw some resources from somewhere to help protect it,” Mr Staples said.
“They knew full well that we were staying to defend animals and there would be a considerable number of people on site.
“Of course I think more resources were needed, and I certainly hope that in the wrap-up to these events and the royal commission that I’m sure will follow … I don’t believe blame is the right thing, but you hope it will help make a better plan for the future.”
‘Far from inundated’ as fears grow for local wildlife
Just over a fortnight since the inferno arrived at its door, staff at Mogo zoo are busy cleaning up, carrying out repairs, and trying to return a sense of routine for the animals, all of whom survived. They have even celebrated the birth of a new lion cub.
The zoo is also responding to the new crisis brought about by this fire season – and the ongoing drought – with billions of native animals feared killed.
Mr Staples said the zoo’s keepers and vets were now turning their attention to injured and displaced wildlife as an “immediate priority”.
Construction has already started on a new veterinary hospital for these animals, using an existing slab and walls that had been intended for a new off-display enclosure.
“That’s where we see our skill set being the most useful for the South Coast,” Mr Staples said.
But so far, unnervingly, the zoo’s vets just haven’t had many animals to treat.
“The numbers are very low at the moment. That’s the scary thing. You would have expected to be inundated and we’re far from it.”
Mr Staples is hoping that will turn around as more people return to their properties and find animals alive that will be under stress from habitat destruction and lack of food and water, if not burns and smoke inhalation.
He said the zoo would need to be deemed safe before it could reopen to the public, which he expected to happen in a matter of weeks. Before it did, he said he was planning a special open day for residents who had been asking after their favourite animals.
“I feel a responsibility now to get people here … it’s been absolutely wonderful to see how happy and joyful they are to know we got through.”
Jenny Noyes is a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. She was previously a writer and editor at Daily Life.