Arguably Australia’s most famous poem, “My Country” by Dorothea Mackellar still accurately describes Australia more than a hundred years after it was first penned. It also helps capture why when Australia has a natural disaster like a bushfire, there is nothing half-hearted about that disaster. Australia is a sunburnt country and this summer is proving no exception.
The Australian landscape and climate favours certain types of disasters. Last year we hit world headlines because we had floodwaters that covered an area larger than the entire of France. At this time of year, half the country seems to be on fire. Scarily, bushfires and floods are our most common disaster. Someone watching from another country couldn’t be blamed for wondering what’s left of Australia? Or as one friend asked me, how is it that there’s still something left to burn?
It’s simple enough. The Australian environment has evolved and adapted to floods and fires. Many Australian trees actually produce seeds that rely on fire to open their seedpods. What gets wiped out one year has already started to regrow the next. In Australia, it’s not a matter of IF there is going to be another bushfire, it’s a matter of WHEN. Many are deliberately lit, some are accidents (campfire left unattended, a faulty electrical wire, etc.) and others are naturally occurring (caused by lightning strikes or something similar). The severity is determined by weather conditions (high temps and winds don’t help) and fuel load (how much and what type of plant life there is available to burn).
Anyone in a bushfire prone area has had preparation articles jammed down their throat all year, so this isn’t one of those posts. Except to say that the best way to survive a bushfire is to prepare for it and be ready to act when conditions require it. If anyone needs help with that, I wrote a post recently on different types of evacuation plans for parrots, but you can also google “Bushfire Survival Plan” and you’ll come up with some useful information. Our CFA (fire brigade) have downloadable survival guides to help people prepare and be ready. There are definitely things you can do to protect your family and your property. If you’re not sure, your local fire brigade would also hold community information meetings before the bushfire season, so look out for them.
What about after a bushfire though? What about the wild animals? The plant life comes back but do the animals? What if I find a burnt animal? These are all questions I hear regularly and they’re what I’m going to answer next.
Bushfires are devastating and very hard on our wildlife. We have many species that are struggling and if the fire wipes out a colony of threatened animals it can be particularly frustrating for those trying to ensure a species’ survival. I’ve known wildlife rescuers who have been so traumatised by a bushfire’s aftermath that they’ve left wildlife rescue work for the sake of their own sanity. It’s gruesome work, not easy and not without risk either.
In terms of wild animals needing rescue after a bushfire, birds are one of the least likely ones to be found. In most cases they either successfully manage to fly away or very quickly succumb to smoke inhalation and die. The lesson in that for pet bird owners is that smoke is extremely dangerous to birds and it’s important you evacuate them early, before the smoke can do damage. That said, some wild birds will wind up in care with burns – it’s just a lot more likely that the larger mammals will be the ones who are found.
If you find an animal (of any sort) that was injured in a fire there are four assumptions that I think it is fairly safe to make:
- The animal will be in shock.
- The animal will be suffering from smoke inhalation/dehydration
- The animal will be in pain.
- The animal needs to see a vet.
This should give you some idea how to approach and treat the animal in a short term. I would expect an animal that is in pain to be more likely to bite, so approach with some added caution for that reason.
Usually the safest way to pick up any injured animal is to drop a clean cloth over them and carefully pick them up and place them either in a pouch (pillow case even) or box that will make them easy to transport without further injuring or traumatising them.
Shock is something that anyone can start to treat by keeping the animal in a warm, dark environment, away from background noise or family pets. Any conscious animal should be offered water (but not forced to drink it). ANY animal will drink water if it wants it – even if you think it is a species that doesn’t drink water (a lot of people make that mistake with Birds Of Prey or Koalas). It is true that some animals don’t necessarily drink water in their everyday life and get their water needs from plants or animals but when they are dehydrated and actually need it – they will look for it.
Pain isn’t something the average person is equipped to deal with and that’s one of the reasons why the animal needs veterinary assistance quickly. I can’t stress enough that any animal that comes in not quite right after contact with a fire needs a vet. Don’t think that you have to get it there or even pay for it yourself – wildlife rescue organisations are around the country and all have trained rescuers and transporters that can come and get the animal (even catch it if you can’t). Click here for a list of Wildlife Organisations in Australia. Sometimes it can take several weeks for the full extent of a burn to be visible, so treatment is very important, so don’t be afraid to get an animal help even if it looks mostly okay.
Burns in birds can actually be very easy to miss when they first happen as their skin isn’t like ours. They don’t have collagen or a thick subcutaneous layer making it harder to actually see the burn. The most likely damage you’ll see with a bird is damage to the feathers. I’ve seen a cockatoo come in almost bald because his feathers had shrivelled to almost nothing. He was very nearly mistaken for a Beak and Feather Disease case (so the vet nearly euthanized him), but was actually otherwise healthy and made a full recovery. It wasn’t until he’d had a full moult that he appeared to normal again.
In terms of general aftermath, a lot of wildlife will be displaced and will look new food and water resources. You can help by putting water out in your yard and if you do notice animals searching for food, sometimes it pays to contact your local wildlife organisation as many regularly do food drops in areas that require it, until plant life has regrown.
In terms of volunteering for wildlife rescue work – the fire rescue groups do training during the year before the fire season. Wildlife Victorian rescuers complete animal burns and assessment training as well as actual fire training (think fire brigade) courses before they’re allowed anywhere near the fire grounds. Things are a lot more organised than they used to be. Rescuers are now well equipped with fire protective clothing – right down to footwear with heat resistant soles. Fire grounds are not a safe place to be when ill equipped. There is no point trying to rescue an animal if you’re going to get stuck and need to be rescued as well.
Other types of volunteering can be anything from cleaning out cages and enclosures at shelters, to knitting pouches and donating food and blankets. Financial donations are always welcome too. Organisations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army have online appeals running to help bushfire affected humans. Wildlife Victoria and WIRES are the organisations I personally have dealt with that are there for the wildlife (and have websites that you can donate to too).