William and Kate hear of ‘devastating’ impact of Australian wildfires

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have praised the Australian “community spirit” as they spoke to those who suffered in wildfires which had a “devastating” effect on the koala population.

The couple described the fires that had blighted Kangaroo Island, one of Australia’s most important wildlife sanctuaries, in January as “terrifying”, with William characterising it as a “monster”.

Around 48% of Kangaroo Island was affected by bushfires over the course of several weeks, leading to the loss of two lives and significant damage to people’s homes and livelihoods.

On Friday, the duke and duchess spoke to five local business owners and emergency personnel by video link to hear more about how they were impacted by the fires and the steps they are taking to rebuild their lives.

The duke said: “It’s fantastic to hear about the community spirit in Australia as always, which is what Catherine and I see when we come down there.

“Aussies are very good at looking after each other and it’s fantastic to see that you’re all pulling together.”

He said he hoped to travel to Australia once the Covid-19 pandemic is under control and they were able to travel again.

Dana Mitchell, co-owner of the wildlife park, told the Cambridges how the koala population had also been hit, leaving them visibly shocked and saying “wow”.

They got a chance to meet koala Grace, who is being looked after at the island, and appeared shocked after learning the koala population had decreased from 60-80,000 to an estimated 5-10,000 since the fires.

“That’s devastating,” William said.

Hearing of how the park had to close again to protect against coronavirus, William jokingly said: “Nothing like you guys going through a wildfire then a global pandemic coming along… it doesn’t help.”

William and Kate praised the efforts of all those who had worked to tackle the spread of the fire, including Captain Mike Swayne, who spent five weeks fighting the blaze as a volunteer for the South Australian Country Fire Service.

He told the Cambridges of how “hard going” the fires had been, saying he had been firefighting for 20 years and had never seen weather like it.

“It must have been terrifying,” said the duke.

“How many of you were having to tackle this monster?”

Capt Swayne said he had come to see it as a “great example of humankind coming to aid others”, and praised his wife for her support.

Stephanie Wurst, a farmer who lost her home and farm as well as half her livestock, told the couple it was a “pretty traumatic time looking back at it now” and said “we’ve had so much support”.

The couple told the group: “I do hope all of you feel that you’ve got that support you’ve got someone you can speak to and somewhere you can go to receive support whether it’s financial or whether it’s just having a chat.

“Please do look after yourselves.

“Hopefully Catherine and I when the world goes back to whatever normality we have in the future, we can come and visit you all and see Kangaroo Island for ourselves.”