Photo credit: Ricky French

The last heroic act of the crew of the C-130 Hercules water-bombing aircraft that crashed near Cooma on Thursday, killing three specialist American firefighters, was to try to save the home and ­animals of a leading wildlife carer from a fast-moving bushfire.

James Fitzgerald, who runs Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust and is also a Rural Fire Service volunteer, lost his home and the animals he’d dedicated his life to rehabilitating in the blaze.

It was the second major fire at the three bush properties he runs as wildlife sanctuaries for koalas and other wildlife. A bushfire on January 4 had already destroyed more than two-thirds of Mr Fitzgerald’s 320ha Kalandan sanctuary. It is believed there is almost nothing left of the total 724ha of prime koala habitat.

Before the fires, Mr Fitzgerald estimated 2000 koalas lived in the chain of unbroken bushland that ran from his sanctuaries at Peak View north to the outskirts of Queanbeyan. It’s unknown how many of those are now alive.

High winds are thought to have flipped the plane as it battled the fire that ultimately destroyed Mr Fitzgerald’s home.

The Hercules came down on a neighbouring property just a few hundred metres from Mr Fitzgerald’s house. At the time, he was rushing an injured koala to the vet. Two other rescued koalas and one monitor lizard receiving care and treatment in and around his home also perished.

Friend and Numeralla resident Richard Swain was with Mr Fitzgerald when the fire hit.

“The winds were extremely high and the fire came out of the bush and was on a run. We’d ­already burnt back around James’s house, but there were still hot spots in there, and the winds were so bad that it got a run up,” Mr Swain said.

The wildlife loss was devastating. “This is James’s life work, and it’s all gone. These animals are his life. He’s heartbroken,” he said.

Mr Fitzgerald’s niece, Claire Henderson, has set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for her uncle to rebuild his sanctuaries. By Friday evening, it had raised more than $47,000.

With the Fitzgerald shelters destroyed, the race is on to find suitable enclosures for injured wildlife that keeps coming in. Mr Swain and his wife, Alison, were scrambling to build emergency enclosures for wildlife on their property, as well as providing accommo­dation for wildlife volunteers.

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