Australian bushfires: We need a post-human disaster response

Elizabeth G. Boulton, PhD
6 min readJan 13, 2020

Of course many ‘humans’ have suffered immensely from the Savage Summer Australian bushfires, (at last count 27 deaths, and at least 2500 homes).

However, like the 2019 Amazon Fires, this event is distinguishable as being primarily a WILDLIFE and LIVESTOCK disaster. Australians had learnt from 2009 Black Saturday fires, which killed 173 people, so mostly they didn’t ‘stay and fight’, but evacuated and lived. However, our wildlife and livestock were trapped in the inferno. The grief and perhaps guilt too, is palpable.

The news that at least 1 billion animals, and ‘100s of billions’ of insects have perished has reverberated around the world. Overseas, people lament Australia’s inability to protect its natural heritage on behalf of global citizens.

Remaining wildlife in these areas hangs by a thread, with pictures of koalas on life support a metaphor for the larger predicament.

Photo ABC Jarrod Whittaker.

Post-human approaches

Disaster response must re-orientate to this new dimension. The Federal Government has allocated wildlife an initial $50 million, from the wider $2 billion fund, which environmental groups says is not enough. A key problem is underlying ecological fragility, and after decades of scant funding, hollowed out institutional response capability. Given this, in the short-term, solutions need to be woven into the fabric of the entire Disaster Recovery process. Also, local populations are a major asset and can be better supported.

As post-human and eco-philosophers explain, this is part of a new world view which does not centre humans. Rather, in the Anthropocene, we see ourselves as just part of a bigger ecological phenomenon. Thus, at general planning meetings, the river is routinely represented, so too the local bird species, and that strange insect. Plastic swirling in the ocean now has ‘agency’ and significant impacts. Donna Haraway suggests we use the term ‘critters’, instead of technical terms, like ‘native species,’ so as to capture a feeling of affection and kinship between humans and the non-human. So from that stance point, before specialists produce their assessments, what do we know? What’s working? What is needed?

Tips from Ecologists. For those animals still alive, the next three months will be perilous. Ecologist Michael Clarke explains the three greatest risks are:

  1. Lack of shelter
  2. Lack of food
  3. Exposure to predators like foxes and feral cats

On shelter, Professor David Lindenmayer , advises people to NOT remove burnt logs or trees:

Standing fire-damaged trees as well as dead trees and fallen logs also provide many resources to surviving and recovering wildlife such as food, shelter and breeding hollows.

Indigenous knowledge. Australia’s first people knew more about fire than modern Australia even did. It is time to seek advice on ‘caring for country.’ As the late story-teller Lorraine Mafi-Williams explains, this is not merely a passive idea, but rather it is regarded as an active, serious, duty:

The law of the land means we had to obey the natural law. Nature gives us signs which is like legislation. You watch the environment, you see how the trees aren’t growing well and you think, something is wrong with that tree, it’s got a disease or something. So we rectify that… the Elders carry the law of the land, law of nature which is with us all the time. We can’t change it because we’re part of that (Book: Australia: The Vatican Museums Indigenous Collection, 2017 p.229).

Bolster local efforts to help livestock. Local groups have sprung up to help livestock and pets. Some, like the Gippsland Horse and Stock Safe (GHSS) group have yet to administratively achieve charity status. Horse folk, Kelly Van Den Berg, Tegan Hector and Tarrah Stacey, who started GHSS, have still been overwhelmed by community donations, but nonetheless, this red-tape hurdle limits funding. The result is many volunteer truck drivers have paid for their own fuel to get hay, feed and medical supplies out to desperate livestock. Its a sizable operation, up to 90 truck movements a day. Quickly supporting such groups, who know the local areas and farmers, is a fast and efficient way to deliver help.

Robert Harding, from Geelong, has been delivering hay since 2nd January 2020.

Animal rescue response teams. These were developed after the Black Saturday fires, but the program was cut. These need to be urgently re-raised. ENGOS like Sydney Wildlife Rescue, RSPCA and Zoos have mobile veterinary teams, and train and work with a huge network of community wildlife carers. Its a great model that could be easily bolstered.

Detection dogs, who can sniff out native species and bring help are a terrific asset.

Use of major National assets — like the Defence Force

If the ADF is used to bury dead animals, they can also be used to help vulnerable critters in the difficult months that lie ahead. Aside from veterinary care, (already being provided,) the Recovery Operation could turn its attention to food supply. Operation Rock Wallaby is an example, here charities partnered with the NSW Government to air-drop carrots and sweet potatoe. Such solutions are needed on a bigger scale, strategically designed for best effect. Geospatial technologies and intelligence and planning methods might also be utilized.

Photos: NSW National Parks

Creative solutions. We need to get creative. For example, to create shelter, could we engage in rapid tree-planting? (i.e. Re-locate some already reasonably mature trees?). Or could some fallen leafy trees from unaffected areas be re-located to Black Zones? Perhaps we could provide small makeshift wooden structures, like post boxes, dog-kennels or mini kids teepees made from scrubby sticks and bushes (like the ones I see in my local park, pictured below).

Feeding Critters…. and the Crushed Apple solution…

Photo by George Huffman on Unsplash

Driving through the Black Zone, delivering feed or re-locating animals since 31 December 2020, GHSS volunteer Phil Stacey has a lot of time to look at the burnt bush. Occasionally he sees an Echidna or Goanna. He sought advice on what to do and someone suggested they could be fed crushed apple (it had to be like a paste). However, food must be given to them far away from the road, so they aren’t exposed to traffic risks. That’s difficult for a busy truck driver. How could it be achieved? Teams of volunteer hikers? Scatter crushed apple from an aircraft? How about drones? Who knows what to do, who who can fund and organise it? This is just one example of how we are unprepared.

Animals can be fond of their regular human neighbours. Cherie Draper, from East Gippsland Animal & Wildlife Donations, uses her facebook page to share tips of what food can be shared with what animals, and how. Its partly trial and error. Also advice and best options vary, for example here, it suggests never using carrots. Working with landowners is key. In a cute story, it turns out local animals are familiar with their regular human neighbors and their various noises and machinery. So, less frightened, they are more likely to take up food in these locations.

Overall, we are confronted with the most vicious, painful, and lethal assault on Australian wildlife and livestock we have ever seen. We need to acknowledge the unique nature of this disaster and orientate problem solving and resources accordingly.



Elizabeth G. Boulton, PhD

Researcher in climate emergency responses, the climate-security nexus, threat framing & narratives. Located in Regional Victoria, Australia.