The unprecedented 2019-2020 Australian wildfire season lasted more than 240 consecutive days and killed over 1 billion animals. Earlier this year, we wrote about some of the harms suffered by wild animals in these fires as well as some ways they were helped. We have written more generally about animals suffering in natural disasters and funded a study on rescuing animals from fires. This post expands on that work and examines how animals respond to fires and survive the aftermath. It also addresses policies that could alleviate the future suffering of wild animals in fire events.
Fires are a source of wild animal suffering that can arise naturally by lightning strikes, or from humans, either deliberately or accidentally. Human activities can also increase the likelihood of fires occurring. The effects of climate change, for example, are generating more dangerous fire conditions through increased temperatures and changing weather patterns.1
During the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires, also called the Black Summer fires, it is estimated that almost 40 million acres of land were burned 2 and over a billion wild animals were killed, although this number is certainly much higher because it includes most mammals, birds, and reptiles but does not include bats, frogs, fishes, or invertebrates.3 Most of these animals will have suffered painful deaths from being burned alive or being overcome by the extreme heat and smoke.
It is not just the animals who die in the fires who suffer. Countless other animals sustain terrible burns and injuries, which may require extensive treatment for months afterwards. Furthermore, many wild animal habitats have been destroyed, leaving little or no food, water, or shelter for survivors. This leaves them prone to starvation, dehydration, more intense competition for resources, and greater exposure to predators and the elements. These animals have little chance of survival in the long-term. Many young animals are orphaned as a consequence of the fires, and will not survive on their own in the wild.
As devastating as the recent bushfire season has been, it has brought to light many examples of people, both individuals and institutions, helping animals who have been affected by the fires.
In this video, a woman rushes into a burning bushland to save a koala and wraps him in the shirt off her back. She named the koala Lewis after one of her grandchildren. Sadly, Lewis was later euthanised due to the severity of his burns. As we can see and hear in the video, Lewis was in an incredible amount of pain. In the wild this would mean he’d endure hours or even days of suffering, but thanks to this woman, he instead got to spend his final days safe and cared for.4
Following the fires on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, a local teenager and his cousin drove around looking for injured koalas and kept them safe in the back of their car. They then transported the koalas to their neighbors who are wild animal carers.5 Without their help, it is likely these koalas would have died from injuries or from a lack of food and water.
Animal rescue groups and hospitals have been critical in helping Australia’s wild animals during the bushfire crisis. Wildlife Stations Shoalhaven in New South Wales (NSW) set up food and water stations for surviving animals in bushfire ravaged areas.6 Sydney Wildlife Rescue continues to provide care and rehabilitation for all kinds of fire-affected birds, reptiles, and mammals.7
Government organizations have also been helping wild animal survivors. The NSW government provided brush-tailed rock wallabies with food by delivering thousands of pounds of vegetables to fire burned valleys and national parks. They plan to continue these food drops until the environment recovers enough to sustain the animals again.8 In Victoria, police drones with infrared technology were deployed in burned areas to find surviving koalas. Drone images were sent to rescue teams on the ground who assessed the animals for burns and injuries and provided emergency treatment.9
In addition, many people have helped wild animals through small acts such as reporting injuries, leaving out dishes of water, and driving slowly through fire affected areas to avoid collisions with animals. There are also numerous people around the world who have donated money to animal support groups and emergency services, funding much needed care and medical assistance.
Unfortunately, there are also recent examples in Australia of people inflicting further suffering on animals in the wild.
In January 2020, the South Australian government approved a mass killing of wild dromedaries (also called Arabian camels), resulting in over 5,000 animals being shot. The reasoning behind the killing was that dromedaries were causing damage to infrastructure in local communities, as an increasing number of the animals have been seeking water in areas inhabited by humans during the hot and dry weather conditions10. Dromedaries were introduced to Australia in the 1800s to be used for transport, but with the invention of cars and trains, most of them were released into the wild where they had to fend for themselves.11
Similarly, the government in Western Australia has been routinely killing wild donkeys for many years, declaring them “pests” who damage the land and feed on the same vegetation as animals used in agriculture.12 However, it has been suggested that donkeys may be helping to reduce the spread of bushfires by keeping vegetation low in areas where it is difficult for other animals to access.13 This is an area of research which could benefit fire management policies but has so far received little attention.
In a series of disturbing incidents in Victoria, a number of flying foxes, also called fruit bats, were found dead from gunshots wounds and broken bones in March 2020. In the same week, another bat who was caught in a fruit tree net was beaten to death. Some of the animals were found with fruit in their mouths, and it is thought they were killed for feeding on fruit trees. An estimated 100,000 bats died in the recent Australian bushfires, and since fire has destroyed their usual feeding and roosting sites, the survivors have been forced to search for food elsewhere.14
With increasingly hot weather conditions and more frequent, intense fires predicted to occur in the future,15 it is likely that more wild animals will start to move into areas occupied by humans in search of the resources they need to survive.
Fire seasons are the times of year when fires are most likely to occur. In different parts of Australia, fire seasons vary according to weather patterns. For example, the bushfire season in the south of Australia occurs in summer and autumn, while Australia’s eastern regions experience their fire season during spring and summer.16 Fire regimes refer to patterns or trends, and encompass the seasons, frequency and intensity of fires.17
Australia has a long history of bushfires, with many of its native plants and animals adapting to these events in the landscape. But the arrival of European settlers in 1788 brought extreme changes to the land and the way it was managed18, such as intensive agricultural practices and logging operations. Consequently, fire regimes also began to change, with bushfires becoming more frequent and widespread .19
There have been large-scale fires in Australia in previous years. In Victoria, the Black Thursday bushfires in 1851 burned through more than 12 million acres of land, and almost 5 million acres burned in the Black Friday bushfires of 1939.20 Grassland fires in central Australia burned over 245 million acres of land in 1974-75, but because grasslands burn less intensely compared to fires in bushland, the landscape was able to recover relatively quickly.21
Australia has been subject to increasingly severe fire conditions over the last few decades; fires are occurring earlier in the season and are burning more intensely than they have in the past. In 2009, the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria were so intense that the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) added the new category of “catastrophic” to classify fire risks that were higher than the existing scale could measure.22 As recent events have shown, the effects of these changing fire regimes are only getting worse and have devastating impacts on humans and nonhuman animals alike.
Wild animals in Australia have demonstrated a variety of different and resourceful ways of responding to the threat of fire. Some animals like kangaroos, wallabies, and birds will flee from fire. This video shows a group (also called a mob) of kangaroos fleeing from a fire in NSW.
Wallabies will often move along creek lines to avoid fire and sometimes double back to take refuge in areas that have already been burnt.23 But even fast-moving animals can succumb to the heat and smoke generated by large fires.
Koalas are slow-moving animals and are unable to flee, so they tend to stay in gum trees during a fire, as this is where they spend the majority of their time resting and feeding on leaves.24 As a result, koalas usually die or suffer terrible burns when a fire moves through their habitat.
Other animals will seek shelter to avoid fire. Reptiles hide in rocky crevices and burrows, and eastern brown snakes often use rat holes under trees.25 The burrows of wombats26 and bilbies27 (a marsupial with rabbit-like ears) have been known to provide shelter to many other animals during fires, including birds, reptiles, invertebrates, and small mammals. Burrows can be a good refuge because they provide a buffer between the animal and the heat from the fire, but they also carry the risk of suffocation from smoke inhalation.28
Echidnas will burrow into the ground and wait for the fire to pass over them. This often results in the tips of their spines being burnt, but they are able to grow them back and usually survive without permanent injuries.29
Recently a group of usually solitary lyrebirds was seen sheltering together in a dam while a fire burned nearby. The presence of male birds together indicates that they may have travelled several miles to get to the dam, because males have their own territories. Lyrebirds have previously been observed taking refuge in holes, gullies, and under wet blankets with humans.30
Many invertebrates are unable to move fast enough to escape fire, so they must find shelter instead. Those able to move underground, like ants and termites, have the best chances of survival.31 Some caterpillars are nocturnal and will take shelter in ant nests during the day, which will provide protection for them if a fire occurs.32 Other invertebrates such as spiders and beetles will seek refuge in the tightly packed leaves of plants that provide a safe haven from fire.33 Snails shelter in rocky outcrops or in the moist leaf litter around fallen logs, but these refuges are not always effective, especially during large, intense fires.34
The animals who do manage to escape the fires are then faced with the problem of how to survive the new threats that arise in the aftermath. The magnitude of the recent Australian bushfires has left the animals who survived having to compete for the scarce resources that remain. Many animals will move into human populated areas in search of food and water, which exposes them to further threats from vehicle collisions, attacks from domestic animals, and shootings. A lack of vegetation also leaves small animals extremely vulnerable without ground cover, and some predators will use smoke as an indicator to move towards burnt areas to hunt other animals.35
Smoke disrupts the natural behaviors of many wild species. Bees get disorientated in smoke-filled environments, making it difficult for them to find their way back to their hives.36 Smoke can also cause lung damage, particularly in small mammals and birds, who breathe in a high volume of air relative to their body size.37 In January, nine koonooms (Australian mice) in Canberra died from smoke inhalation from the NSW bushfires more than 30 miles away.38 Buildups of ash and soot also cause problems when they are washed into rivers, polluting the habitat of aquatic animals and contaminating drinking water needed by survivors.39
Following a life-threatening event like a fire, animals may suffer from acute stress or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Wild animal carers have reported traumatized kangaroos behaving erratically and aggressively, refusing food and having difficulty settling even after sedation. This may also be magnified for kangaroos in a hospital or other indoor environment because they have strong social attachments to their mob. Kangaroos in nature have also been observed showing PTSD symptoms, such as hypervigilance and a lack of playful or nurturing behaviors that they would ordinarily display. Such disorders can alter an animal’s ability to form bonds and relationships with other animals and can lead to myopathy (muscle damage resulting from overexertion and stress) or even death. Orphaned joeys are particularly susceptible to this disorder.40
Some animals have ways of surviving after a fire. Brown antechinuses41, commonly called marsupial mice, and echidnas42 are able to induce torpor (reduce their body temperature and metabolic rate) to conserve energy while hiding in their burrows or shelter. This increases their chances of survival because it means they require less food and less time foraging where they are especially vulnerable to predation due to the decreased amount of ground cover following a fire.
Wombat burrows, in addition to providing refuge, can also provide water to other animals. On a drought-affected farm in NSW, wombats burrowed several meters below the ground to a water source, creating a well that a variety of other animals have been observed using, including kangaroos, wallabies, and emus.43
The recent bushfires in Australia have shown some of the best actions we can take to help animals in the wild, but have also illustrated ways we can improve these efforts and ensure we do not inflict further suffering on animals.
When animals come into populated areas, people can provide them with the resources they need. This can be as simple as people leaving out containers of water and planting trees and grasses on their property. There have been many images posted online of people offering koalas water from bottles, but a senior veterinarian has advised that it is better to offer animals water from a dish or from your hands so they can lap the water at their own pace, as there is a danger of water getting into an animal’s lungs if too much is drunk too quickly.44
There are also ways to help surviving animals in remote areas get the resources they need, as demonstrated by government food deliveries and Wildlife Stations Shoalhaven setting up food and water stations. The Arid Recovery organization has developed a water fountain that can be made for less than $30 with materials available from hardware stores, and has posted instructions for making them on their website. A variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles have been observed using these fountains in a South Australian wild animal reserve.45 Installing and refilling these stations in bushfire-affected areas could be the difference between life and death for some animals.
Shelter is another vital element to wild animal survival, and we’ve seen examples of people providing this to fire-affected animals, such as rescue centers and the homes of animal carers. But animals who remain in their burnt environment, particularly smaller animals, need protection from predators and harsh weather. Simple structures made from flexible wire and shade cloth have been shown to be effective shelters for animals in burnt landscapes, and have been used by rodents, reptiles, and ground dwelling birds. Long sections of the structures can be used to connect patches of remaining vegetation and provide cover from predators in the same way that ground vegetation does.46 Humans could also construct artificial tree hollows and logs to provide safe refuge as these will take many decades to develop again naturally, and are essential for the survival of some animals.47
It is imperative in the days and weeks following bushfires that areas are thoroughly scouted to look for surviving animals in need of medical treatment, food, and water. We’ve seen many instances of people assisting animals during these crucial times, but more could be done to ensure survivors are found. Although the Victorian government has sent its own rescue teams into fire affected areas, it has denied access to other qualified groups and individuals wanting to help animals on government lands.48 The government maintains they only deploy their own assessment teams who have completed the necessary training into these areas, and do not allow anyone else in due to safety concerns.49 But with such vast areas of burnt land to cover, turning away qualified people who are willing to help means that many wild animals will unessessarily endure further suffering.
Legislation regarding natural disasters exists on a state level in Australia, and the inclusion of animals in fire management plans vary from state to state. Prior to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, the only animals included in disaster relief planning were those used in agriculture, and some states still have no mention of wild animals in their management plans. Where plans do include wild animals, governments tend to focus on threatened or high profile species such as koalas, while other animals are dependent on the help of wild animal groups and carers.50 This is of particular concern in Victoria, where non-government groups are denied access to fire-affected areas to perform rescues, highlighting the need for coordinated rescue efforts between government and non-government groups to maximize the effectiveness of such operations.51
The Australian Federal Government has pledged $50 million to support emergency wild animal recovery from bushfires, which includes funding for rescue groups.52 State governments have made additional grants and funding available to support wild animal groups and carers who are looking after bushfire affected animals.53 Although these funds may provide carers with temporary financial assistance, expenses such as food, electricity, and medical bills will continue to mount as some animals require many months of treatment until they are fully recovered, while others will need permanent care. Many rescue groups and individuals rely on donations to cover these expenses or else pay the costs themselves.54 It would therefore be beneficial to wild animal carers for the Australian government to provide them with ongoing funding to ensure fire-affected animals receive the care and rehabilitation they need.
Former senior fire and emergency service leaders have called on state and territory governments to increase funding to mitigate bushfires.55 According to emergency service workers in Victoria and NSW, lightning strikes are the most likely cause of the recent large fires in Australia, which are are occurring in remote regions after lightning storms, while incidents of arson tend to happen closer to urban areas.56 But whether they are ignited naturally or by humans, all fires inflict terrible suffering on animals, and therefore all possible measures should be taken to minimize their potential destructiveness.
As demonstrated by their actions in response to the recent bushfire crisis, many humans care about the suffering of wild animals, and we are capable of helping them in a variety of ways. Fire and drought bring suffering to all wild animals and do not discriminate between animals of different species, and neither should we when it comes to helping them.
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9 Gimesy, D. (2020) “Drones and thermal imaging: Saving koalas injured in the bushfires”, The Guardian, 11 February [accessed on 27 March 2020].
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30 Millington, B. (2020) “‘Solitary’ lyrebirds band together to save themselves in ‘incredible’ show of unity under bushfire threat”, ABC News, 29 January [accessed on 31 January 2020].
31 Lewis, D. (2020) “‘Deathly silent’: Ecologist describes Australian wildfires’ devastating aftermath”, op. cit.
32 New, T. R.; Yen, A. L.; Sands, D. P. A.; Greenslade, P.; Neville, P. J.; York, A. & Collett, N. G. (2010) “Planned fires and invertebrate conservation in south east Australia”, Journal of Insect Conservation, 14, pp. 567-574.
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34 Ray, E. J. & Bergey, E. A. (2015) “After the burn: Factors affecting land snail survival in post-prescribed-burn woodlands”, Journal of Molluscan Studies, 81, pp. 44-50.
35 McNaughton, J. & Irving-Guthrie, A. (2020) “Australian animals’ bushfire survival tactics save many, but some species are dying en masse”, op. cit.
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38 Midena, K. (2020) “Native Australian smoky mouse becomes first species to be killed from bushfire smoke inhalation”, ABC News, 27 February [accessed on 27 February 2020].
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51 State Government of Victoria (2020) “Wildlife emergencies”, op. cit.
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54 Stockwell, S. (2020) “Animal bushfire refugees might not be able to return to their habitats for months”, op. cit.
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