Zoo fire plan put to test

CHOOSING whether to stay or go was hard enough for homeowners in Halls Gap last week. 

But Greg and Yvonne Culell had more than just a property, a business and a family to think about — the Halls Gap Zoo owners had to consider the 160 species of animals under their care.

In late 2007 the Culells took over the former wildlife park located four kilometres outside Halls Gap, building it up to become the state’s largest privately-owned zoo. 

But all their hard work was threatened last week. Their daughter Megan, a Warrnambool resident since 2008, anxiously waited to see if the bushfires burning through the Grampians would spare her parents’ zoo and the Halls Gap community.

The 23-year-old nursing student said it had been a tense day after speaking to her father on Friday morning, knowing  her parents would stay and fight to save their 21-hectare property.

“I knew they would be busy doing their thing throughout the day,” Ms Culell said.

“I have all faith in my dad.

“He is straight to the point and I knew he’d deal with it as he needed to deal with it.

“I spoke to him that evening after the wind had changed and the fires started to backburn so it was a relief to know it was all good, but he was so calm and so relaxed through it all.” 

Ms Culell said her parents had developed a detailed fire plan with the CFA, covering step-by-step how each animal would be relocated if they decided to leave. 

“They’ve had the fire plan in place and you’re always aware something could happen. They always had the plan to try and stay,” she said. 

“They were never going to up and leave animals so they had a complex fire plan in place that would enable the CFA to also be on site to help them.”

The fires came within 2.5 kilometres of the Halls Gap township before a wind change brought a collective sigh of relief. When the area reopened on Sunday, the zoo was already open by the afternoon, with visitors showing support.

The greatest challenge for the Grampians belongs to those rebuilding their lives after losing homes, but Ms Culell said the district would need support.

“The best thing people can do is go and support everyone in the whole Grampians community — even just go up for a day because it’s not that far from Warrnambool.”

Over the weekend, more than 23,000 Facebook users “liked” a post from Mr Culell to those supporting the zoo and Halls Gap community throughout the fire threat.

“We cannot express enough our heartfelt gratitude to the CFA and DEPI fire crews who continue to fight these and other fires, as well as being incredibly proud of all of our dedicated staff.”

j.pech@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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