Predicting the response of faunal communities to fire presents a challenge for land managers worldwide because the post-fire responses of species may vary between locations and fire events. Post-fire recovery can occur via nucleated recovery from in situ surviving populations or by colonization from ex situ populations. Fine-scale spatial patterns in the patchiness of fires and the proximity of burnt sites to source populations may contribute to both the variability in post-fire responses and the processes by which populations recover. We examined the avifauna at recently burnt sites within extensive semi-arid shrublands of south-eastern Australia, including 72 sites < 5 years since fire and 26 sites 10 years since fire. Study sites represented a gradient of increasing distance from ‘unburnt’ vegetation (i.e. > 27 years since fire) and varied in the presence or absence of small (25–900 m2) unburnt patches of vegetation. For sites < 5 years since fire, species richness was higher at sites closer to unburnt vegetation and at sites containing unburnt patches. These patterns were no longer evident at sites of 10 years since fire. The probability of occurrence of three of seven bird species modelled decreased with increasing distance to unburnt vegetation, but this pattern was evident only at sites burnt uniformly. One species was found almost exclusively at patchily burnt sites. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that proximity to unburnt vegetation enhances post-fire occupancy, and that colonization from ex situ populations is an important process for post-fire recovery of avifauna. Additionally, small unburnt patches enhance the rapid recovery of assemblages post-fire. These patterns are important for understanding the dynamics of post-fire population recovery. We recommend that management of fire for ecological purposes should explicitly consider the role that the spatial attributes of fires play in determining the post-fire community.