Wildfires and wildlife: How animals survive fires and how you can help
Eagle County Wildlife Roundtable
Fire has been a common natural event in history, even before humans. Lightning historically ignited fires on the grasslands and in the forests around the world. Many plants and animals have adapted, through millions of years, to surviving those fires. Fires tended to burn a patchwork across the landscape and, for the most part, they may not have burned with the severity that we see today.
Many early day journals, diaries and memoirs of people traveling across the West in the 1800s had firsthand accounts and experiences with prairie and forest fires. Many coming into Colorado reported they could not see the Rockies due to smoke from forest fires. Fires were being ignited by settlers and by the coal-fired locomotives that were working their way into the Rockies.
Native Americans, pioneers, and early farmers and ranchers had a knowledge of fire and animal behavior that has been lost. Native Americans actually used fire to improve food supplies. Ranchers, farmers and loggers favored fires because it improved land conditions even though humans had a limited understanding of the ecological role of fire.
Today, an estimated 85% of wildland fires in the U.S. are caused by humans. Human-caused fires result from campfires left unattended, the burning of debris, equipment use and malfunctions, negligently discarded cigarettes, fireworks, sparks from firearms and intentional acts of arson.
Where people and property are threatened, all efforts are made to extinguish the fire. In some locations — such as large national parks, wilderness areas and forests — and where the wildfire is started by lightning, a natural fire might be permitted to burn its course to benefit the ecosystem.
By more fully understanding wildfire, managers can better plan for potential desirable and undesirable effects of wildfires. Although managers can be prepared, they cannot predict when or where fires are going to occur.
A history of wildland fire prevention
Some major fires in the early 1900s convinced the government and the public that many of those fires could have been prevented with enough firefighters and equipment. They developed a philosophy that only total fire suppression could prevent fires from occurring.
The government agencies got really good at suppressing fires — maybe too good. Fires were suppressed so much that the forests were no longer a patchwork of growth; they were continuous. In addition, increases in temperature and decreases in precipitation due to climate change have increased the number and the severity of fires.
In 1944, the War Advertising Council and the U.S. Forest Service dreamed up Smokey Bear in a ranger’s hat and dungarees, believing that fire on the homefront could distract from the war effort.
Smokey Bear’s slogan, “Only you can prevent forest fires” might have been too effective. Those protected areas were now storing fuels, and those forests became more susceptible to really dangerous wildfires.
In the 1960s, scientific research began to demonstrate that fire played a positive role in forest ecology. This led to a change in Forest Service policy. Many natural-caused fires were allowed to burn in designated wilderness areas where people and property had little chance of being harmed. Now, many fires are intentionally started as prescribed burns to develop a patchwork of forest that historically existed.
How does the ecosystem recover?
Many plants will survive wildfire. Forest fires usually do not completely burn an area. Patches of trees, grasses and shrubs are left behind as fire burns around and over some areas. Some fires only burn through the understory and do not burn the trees. Different types of plants may survive in each of those areas.
Some plants like sagebrush are often killed by fires and may not return to an area for years. Many trees, however, are fire-resistant. Large, mature trees have thick bark that can be fire-resistant. Fire may scorch needles of conifers but not kill the tree. The needles may return the next growing season.
Many conifers have “serotinous” cones, cone scales that are naturally sealed shut with resin. These cones may hang on a tree for many years. Fire melts the resin, the cones open up and release the seeds.
Some trees have self-pruning branches. Lower branches die off, and when fires move through the understory, the top or crown of the tree is not involved in the fire.
Some trees like willows and aspen may be decimated, but their undamaged roots will be able to regenerate soon after the fire.
Seeds of many plants will not burn, and some will survive if they are on or mixed in the soil or buried under forest litter as the fire passes over. That will allow them to germinate when conditions allow. Fires also produce ash, which has high levels of nutrients that benefits plant growth.
After fires, rain results in mudslides that are exacerbated by the fire-hardened soil and steep slopes. Reseeding by different agencies and the public can be difficult and cause changes to the ecosystems.
How do the animals survive?
Animals with limited mobility, such as young, are more vulnerable to injury and death than larger, mature animals.
Most birds have the ability to fly away from a blaze. The terrain is not an impediment and that allows them to move in any direction to escape. Turkeys and other birds that cannot fly far might find shelter in islands of growth that do not burn. Areas along rivers, ponds and lakes may also provide shelter.
Many small animals like rodents and reptiles find protection in underground burrows. Large dead wood can provide shelter for many small mammals. Animals may also move into areas with water.
Midsize mammals like skunks and raccoons and slower-moving large mammals like bears may suffer greater loss than other species since they cannot outrun a fire. They may find shelter in rock piles and cavities in trees, logs or caves.
Larger mammals like deer, elk and moose probably have enough speed and endurance to outrun a fire, though with the recent fires burning hotter and moving much more rapidly, the impact may be more severe than in the past.
Many biologists believe that animals seem to know where to go to seek protection. Animals that know their home ranges may know the best ways to get out of harm’s way. They may find refuge near or in ponds, lakes and rivers. Some move up to Alpine tundra. Others move into large, open meadows where the fire severity is lower.
Many studies show a reorganization of animal communities in response to fire, with increased populations in some species accompanied by decreases in others. Fires affect animals that survive mainly in the ways the habitat is altered. In fact, many species thrive because of fire’s influence. Fire may remove old growth and open more meadows that increases food supply for many species.
Many animals will return to areas within the first year after a fire. There will be many areas with lush grasses to feed on.
What can you do?
Make a commitment to not be one of the people who cause 85% of the wildfires in the U.S. Some research has found that human-sparked fires spread more than twice as fast as lightning-induced fires and cause significantly more damage.
- Respect all rules and regulations about fire safety around your home and when recreating
- Clear defensible space around your home by removing trees and brush that can act as a ladder and move fire to your home
- Keep roofs, gutters, decks and patios clear of leaves, pine needles or other flammables at all time
- If you camp, be sure to be cautious with campfires.
- Be cautious when using any equipment and firearms that might ignite a fire
- Teach your kids about fire safety and have a plan for evacuation
Rick Spitzer is a member of the Eagle County Community Wildlife Roundtable, a collaborative partnership with the White River National Forest, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, local government entities, community members and citizen scientists.
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