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SYDNEY - It was a chance encounter in the charred landscape of Australia's deadly wildfires: A koala sips water from a bottle offered by a firefighter.

The death toll from the bushfires in Victoria stands at 181, however State Premier John Brumby said 50 unidentified bodies had not been included in the official figure, which would exceed 200.

The wildfires have also destroyed more than 750 homes, left 5,000 people homeless and burned 2,850 square kilometres of land.

Firefighter David Tree was patrolling a burned-out forest near Mirboo North, about 150 kilometres east of Melbourne when he noticed a koala moving gingerly on scorched paws.

Clearly in pain, the animal stopped when it saw Tree.

"It was amazing, he turned around, sat on his bum and sort of looked at me with (a look) like, put me out of my misery," Tree told the Associated Press. "I yelled out for a bottle of water. I unscrewed the bottle, tipped it up on his lips and he just took it naturally.

"He kept reaching for the bottle, almost like a baby."

The team called animal welfare officers to pick up the koala on Sunday, the day after deadly firestorms swept southern Victoria state.

"I love nature, and I've handled koalas before. They're not the friendliest things, but I wanted to help him," Tree said.

Often mistakenly called koala bears because they resemble a child's teddy bear, the marsupial is actually a rather grumpy creature with a loud growl. It rarely comes down from the trees and doesn't like walking.

Koalas are especially vulnerable to wildfires because they move slowly on the ground.

The wildfires cut through parks and forests and sent countless wombats and other native species fleeing. One resident reported seeing kangaroos bouncing down the road with flames at their backs.

The fires also razed farmland, killing or panicking sheep and cattle. Television footage showed cows running down the main street of a smoke-filled town.

A count of the animals killed has not been made.

Koalas normally drink almost no water because they get almost all their fluids from the leaves they eat.

After the scorched koala sipped from the water bottle and Tree's crew moved on, animal welfare officials came by.

The koala was in pain but recovering with antibiotics, Jenny Shaw of the Mountain Ash Wildlife Shelter told Melbourne's The Herald Sun newspaper.

"She is lovely - very docile - and she has already got an admirer. A male koala keeps putting his arms around her," Shaw was quoted as saying. "It will be a long road to recovery, but she should be able to be released back into the wild in about five months."

The Royal Society for the Protection of Animals said it was establishing shelters to care for thousands of pets and livestock affected by the fires.

Despite her gender, the now famous koala is nicknamed Sam.

- AP