Heartbreak as WA animal refuge gutted

Aaron Bunch
·3-min read

When zoologist Claire Stratford lost her dream job at Perth Zoo due to disability a decade ago, her rural home and the animal refuge she built became her life.

This week an out-of-control bushfire destroyed it all, along with 85 other homes.

"The fire had started and we could see on the app from the direction the wind was blowing we could be in trouble," Ms Stratford, 42, told AAP.

"But it was still in Wooroloo so I didn't think we had a huge problem because we're in Gidgegannup, more than 10 kilometres away.

"I was wrong."

Ms Stratford and her parents - who lived on the same rural property about 40km northeast of Perth's CBD - started moving dozens of animals from their bush enclosures into cages ready for evacuation.

"I think we drove out at 6.30pm and by that stage the trees along the road were alight," she said.

In the cars with Ms Stratford and her family were six dogs with special needs, ferrets, rabbits, a possum, sheep, cockatoos, macaws, frogs, snakes and turtles. The fire moved so fast they had to leave their horses behind.

"There were embers, the smoke was so thick, giant billowing plumes into the sky. The glow was incredible and I could see then we were going to lose both houses."

Ms Stratford's brother-in-law stayed behind to fight the blaze on her sister's neighbouring property.

"It's also gone. We lost contact with him about 7pm and my sister was hysterical most of the night because we didn't know if he'd got out," she said.

"He could hardly stand up when he got to us the next morning he was so exhausted and just said to my sister "I'm sorry my darling, I couldn't save our house".

"His face was burned, he was coughing constantly and had to go to hospital for smoke inhalation."

Ms Stratford's family have since learned all three homes on the two properties were destroyed on Monday night, as the massive blaze swept west through the hills and down onto Perth's coastal plain where it continues to burn.

"My home was everything. Losing my job at the zoo because I couldn't continue it shattered my heart, so building the property into an animal refuge became my life and what's kept me going," she said.

"It's been my drive, my focus, my everything."

Ms Stratford suffers from Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects her skin and joints, and makes everyday life almost impossible.

She saved her animals from the blaze but lost hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of specialised medical equipment.

Her family also lost most of their personal possessions and despite still being in shock at the loss of their homes have spent the week organising Ms Stratford's medical care.

"We're shattered. It's hard to comprehend what's happened. I don't know if I have the ability to rebuild but these animals have been my life and deserve beautiful enclosures again," she said.

"At least my beautiful horses survived."