What Happens to Animals During a Forest Fire?
By now you have likely heard about the massive and out-of-control forest fire currently raging around Yosemite National Park in California. I not only heard about it last week, I encountered the beast right after it exploded like an angry fire-breathing dragon bent on mass destruction.
My family was on our way to the Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp, just outside the West Gate of Yosemite for a wonderful week of old fashioned summer camp fun when we were stopped by park rangers: “No traffic is going through the West Gate due to a fire that suddenly exploded from 50 acres to 800 and jumped the highway.”
At that point, we had no doubt the fire was not only quickly growing, but also dangerously close, as the darkened smokey afternoon sky was now raining ash upon our car. Turning around was obviously the only option. Silently, I fretted over the fate of our beloved camp, a historic camp that many California families refer to as their “favorite place on earth.”
After a 12-hour drive, I was lamenting the fact that we were only 20 minutes away from Tuolumne Family Camp and yet so far, now that a blazing fire stood between us and a week of fun, when my youngest daughter exclaimed in a very worried voice, “But Mama, where will all of the forest animals go?”
My two daughters are always worried about the welfare of animals and Ella’s question jerked me back to the present. I told her that animals have much better eyes, ears and noses than we do and when they sensed the danger they quickly fled to safety. That is what I guessed to be true anyhow, and it seemed like the best thing to say to a now very anxious 7-year old child watching ash and smoke swirl around us.
But silently again, I wondered, where DO all of the animals go? Are they able to escape or do firefighters find gruesome carcass after carcass as they themselves chase the fire “mopping” up any hot spots that could flare up again. I could not recall hearing such stories, so I placed my bet on the animals’ evolved instinct to flee fire long before real danger presents itself.
As soon as I had internet access again, I looked up my daughter’s question. My answer was fortunately quite accurate: in the aftermath of a forest fire surprisingly few animals are found dead. Animals, whether feathered, furred or scaled have memory of fire embedded in their limbic brains. The first hint of smoke, the first whoosh of dry grass going up in flames or the popping of wood are easily registered by wild animals at great distances, so rarely are they completely caught off guard and thus they have plenty of time to flee. The most vulnerable, of course, are the old, the very young and the sick or injured. Those that can flee by wing, foot, hooves or slither, do so, while others not so fast or just too small, burrow underground and wait for the impending disaster to pass overhead.
Case in point: In 1988, Yellowstone National Park infamously went up in flames – and so much so, that for the first time in the park’s history, the entire park was shut down. Speculation went as wild as the fire as to what would happen to the park animals. Many anticipated a scorched landscape littered with charred carcasses.
Yet, despite months of raging fire through the park, in the end the flames and smoke claimed very few animals. Surveys post-fire revealed that of 40,000 – 50,000 elk in the park, only 345 were found dead, a very small percentage of the overall population. Additionally, the survey noted that 36 mule deer, 6 black bears, 12 moose, 9 bison and 1 grizzly succumbed to the 1988 fire, and while sad, it is important to note that the vast majority of large animals survived. Rodents and other small animals had the highest mortality rates due to their small size, but still the fatality numbers were still much lower than one might expect. About one hundred fish were discovered dead, but their deaths were blamed on fire retardant water contamination rather than the fire itself.
Animals, forests and forest fires are all part of a natural healthy cycle – and in fact many plants and animals depend on naturally occurring wildfire to flourish. For example, many pine tree require the intense heat of a forest fire to open their cones and release their seeds. No fire, no new trees. The Red Cockaded Woodpecker, the Swainson’s Warbler, many types of quail, foxes, bears, squirrels and other animals depend on fire to keep undergrowth in check. Consequently, all forest-dwelling plants and animals have co-evoloved with the inevitable fires and have found ways to adapt.
So do animals need our help escaping from wildfires? “Not really,” says Mike McMillan with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But, he adds, “It is up to all of us to take care of our precious public lands, and the amazing creatures that live there.”