MOGO, Australia: As a wall of flame bore down on the small town of Mogo on the New South Wales (NSW) south coast of Australia, people fled for their lives.
At the same time, Rachel Yeo drove her car in the opposite direction - towards the inferno.
The 31-year-old Singaporean ignored the emergency evacuation instructions issued by fire authorities on New Year’s Eve, as an out of control bushfire threatened to overwhelm the community. Instead she went to work - at the Mogo Wildlife Park where she would spend a harrowing day trying to save the zoo’s animals from the unfolding disaster.
“The first thing I thought of was to come to the zoo and check on the animals. I had to make sure they were safe and that was just my priority,” she said. “It was the loneliest car drive of my life because as I was driving to the zoo, everyone else was driving the opposite direction.
“We were basically bracing ourselves for the approaching fire. And it was honestly the most terrifying day of my life. The way you see the fire coming. It felt like a titan, it felt like a monster.
“You can smell the smoke, you feel the heat coming and you just see this red inferno approaching. And there was so much tension in the air and just a lot of nerves going,” she said.
Mogo Wildlife Park is home to about 200 animals, including lions, giraffes, zebras and rhinos. Many were either too large or too dangerous to evacuate safely. While the staff did all they could to protect, shelter and prepare them, they were vulnerable to the unprecedented fury of the fire, which would eventually destroy more than 176 houses and kill two people in Mogo, a devastating loss in a town of little more than 300.
This fire is just one of many which have devastated many parts of Australia in recent weeks, destroying vast areas of bush and laying waste to entire communities.
Yeo had only joined the zoo’s team in early December. Still, she treated the animals - particularly the primates she cares for on a daily basis - like family.
“We have such a bond with our animals. It’s not a meerkat, it’s not a gibbon, it’s a friend of ours. We’re very personal with them. They can’t get out of this. We’re not going to let them suffer.”
READ: Australian animals face extinction threat as bushfire toll mounts
She and a group of 14 other staff positioned themselves around the zoo and prepared themselves for a fight against the flames. As spot fires broke out, they extinguished them - at one point a blaze began on the complex’s gibbon island, forcing the staff into desperate action to put it out.
As day appeared to turn to night in the heavy smoke, even the zoo’s director Chad Staples, who had made the protection preparations in the event of a fire threat, began to fear the worst. The park was cornered.
“I never knew that anything could be like that. There were about three hours when it was at its worst. Watching the fire roll in ... it was pretty full on,” he told CNA.
“I cannot explain how terrifying it was,” Yeo said. “The smoke, the ash, the debris, the winds swept it all up and it felt like a blizzard. It felt like midnight at 10am. The feeling was like, you felt all alone. It was indescribable.
“Every biological instinct tells you to run. I can only imagine what the animals were going through.”
Eventually as a wind change swept through, the danger was finally averted. The Mogo staff had managed to prevent damage to the zoo, as well as keeping every single animal out of harm’s way.
READ: Brave as lions: Zoo heroics save animals from Australia's raging fires
While the good outcome for the zoo was widely celebrated, the destruction of many parts of the historic town, and large swathes of the south coast region, has left the community reeling. The summer period is essential for the local tourism business.
“We can now be at the front of getting people to come back to the south coast of NSW. This is the busy time. People are going to hurt from this. This is something that’s going to hurt for a long time,” Staples said.
And while the zoo’s animals were safe, wild creatures left to fend for themselves in the inferno suffered huge losses. The staff’s veterinarians have been tending to injured wildlife since the fire came through.
“It’s an understatement to say it’s devastating. I have cried over just the thought of so many animals being lost. So much area has been lost and the ones that are still alive are starving because they’ve lost their homes, they’ve lost all their food,” Yeo said.
A GoFundMe page was started to assist the zoo in the aftermath of the disaster, and has raised more than US$60,000 so far. Staples says the money will be used to establish a veterinary hospital to treat the vast numbers of wild animals that are “injured, sick, dying, starving”. He also plans to help regrow trees in the surrounding area to assist wildlife left without their natural habitat.
Yeo’s “trial by fire”, as she describes it, was not the way she thought her first working month in Mogo would go. Despite the trauma and ongoing concerns about new fires reigniting, she has found strength in the closeness of the small community and their bravery in the face of calamity.
READ: Makeshift koala hospital scrambles to save dozens injured in bushfires
“You read about it in the news, you see it on television, but it’s another thing when you’re faced with it, face on. It’s absolutely terrifying and the aftermath was really quite sad and devastating,” she said.
“The team that we have at Mogo Wildlife Park are wonderful people, selfless people. A lot of them came to work not knowing whether their house was going to be safe, not knowing if their families were going to be safe.
“Everyone is trying to pitch in. Everyone is trying to help. These people are really resilient. This is truly the strong Aussie spirit.”