Wildfires And Animal Protection: Towards Better Intervention Strategies
Fueled by heightened human activity, tens of thousands of wildfires occur each year, affecting millions of hectares across North America, Europe, Australia, and other regions. Experts predict that the coming years will see an increase in the occurrence and intensity of forest fires, especially as climate change and other human-caused changes intensify. Wildfires tend to receive a lot of government and media attention, but only fires that have high human costs or economic consequences are generally highlighted.
Beyond the human suffering caused by fires, they also impact countless wild animals by causing distress, injuries, and a wide range of physiological and behavioral changes. Little is known about how individual animals cope with fires in the wild, and as result, they consistently experience poor welfare that comes from a lack of knowledge and education during rescue and rehabilitation efforts.
In this blog, we explore research from Animal Ethics and other sources that discuss the harms that wild animals experience during wildfires, and how animal advocates can address the problem.
The Start Of A Fire
When a fire is imminent, many wild animals have adapted different strategies for survival. Some animals, like long-eared bats, sleepy lizards, and fat-tailed dunnarts, have evolved enhanced senses that can help them detect fires. Many birds fly to escape, while large mammals such as bison and caribou tend to move calmly toward fire borders. As a result, setting rehabilitators at borders and putting drones and cameras at different strategic points can help make rescue efforts more efficient.
Other animals have developed unique ways to cope with fires. For example, torpor is a survival mechanism marked by a state of decreased physiological activity and metabolic rate. Research has found that the brown antechinus displays increased torpus after wildfires, reducing the need to forage in burnt areas. Meanwhile, many animals take refuge below ground in soil tunnels and burrows. During Australia’s severe bushfires in 2020, the media was abuzz with the story of wombat burrows, which provided much-needed shelter and water to other nearby animals. However, it’s important to note that burrows can be dangerous hideouts without proper ventilation.
Fleeing to safety is just the first step. In the immediate aftermath of a wildfire, there are major changes in habitats and microclimates that can affect wild animals. Some species may thrive in the new environment, but in general, fewer species are observed after a fire. Vegetation loss and altered soil quality may compromise important biological processes, leading animals to seek out new habitats. Adapting to a new environment will include challenges from predators, competitors, and parasites.
Dealing With Heat (And Other) Stress
The high temperatures associated with wildfires can give rise to heat stress or hyperthermia in animals, which is marked by physiological changes such as dehydration (which can cause organ damage), an increased amount of fat in their feces, and a reduction in plasma cholesterol and phospholipids. Other changes in biological function as a result of heat stress include alteration in hormonal secretions, blood metabolites, and reproductive functions and behavior.
Stress levels in general can make or break an animal’s survival during wildfires. According to Animal Ethics, higher levels of stress may prevent animals from meeting their physiological and psychological demands. High stress can also cause fear, disorientation, hyperventilation, and lack of coordination, all of which can make an animal more vulnerable to predators (or can cause them to run toward the fire). One study of ants found that chronic stress as a result of wildfires impacted their normal fight-or-flight responses, making their colonies more vulnerable. Once rescued, wild animals may experience heightened stress in captivity.
Individual animals have different ways of managing their daily energy budget and needs, all of which contribute to their coping styles during wildfires. While there is no “one size fits all” approach to rescuing and rehabilitating wild animals, there are a few general rules that rehabilitators try to follow. For example, heat-stressed animals need to be cooled gradually to avoid causing hypothermia. Furthermore, stressors such as noise and the presence of other animals should be minimized.
Injuries And Death
It’s difficult to estimate the number of animals who become injured or die during fires. Furthermore, there is no easy way to study this topic. Smaller mammals often show a decrease in number and diversity after wildfires, especially those who require tree cover and specialist diets. Meanwhile, larger mammals such as bison and elk may be able to flee more easily and seek shelter in unburned patches of land. When they die, it’s often from the effects of smoke or because of extremely fast-moving fires.
While birds generally have the benefit of being able to fly to safety, those who fly at lower altitudes can die from smoke inhalation and exhaustion. Larger birds can escape, but in general, the nesting performance of birds is reduced up to a year after a fire. Animals with low mobility are often the most susceptible to injuries and death. This also includes non-migratory fishes and certain invertebrates such as arthropods and even pollinators.
When it comes to burn injuries, the burn depth, location, and species type play a role in how the animal will fare down the line. For example, injuries to the face can prevent an animal from chewing, while burn wounds near joints can prevent them from foraging and escaping predators. While there are different measurements to calculate the total percentage of burnt skin for each species, animals with <50% burnt skin have a reasonable to poor prognosis, and animals with >50% body burns are generally euthanized by rehabilitators.
After The Fire
Fire significantly alters the environment. There is an immediate increase in temperature and light, and a drop in humidity. Furthermore, fires release charcoal, ash, and harmful chemicals. There are soil alterations and changes in the characteristics and abundance of food sources. This also reduces the availability of resources and shelter, resulting in new patterns of competition between species.
The destruction of vegetation alters the microclimate in many forests, affecting the species who live there. Often, the ability of species to adapt to the new environment will determine their survival success. While some species are able to modify their diets to survive, adapting to new environments and microclimates is harder for more sensitive species such as amphibians. Human activity via post-fire salvage logging in recently burned areas introduces further changes and can harm individuals of species that are in need of tree shelters.
Post-fire predation is another major issue. During a fire and in its immediate aftermath, many animals are particularly vulnerable to their predators. Enhanced visibility and the lack of protective shrub cover, a heightened state of stress, and disorientation combined with a lack of resources make animals more prone to predatory attacks. While some species find it easier to detect and avoid predators following a fire, this is usually only the case for animals who can spot their predators from further distances. What’s more, prey animals may make risky, dangerous choices to find food after a fire, especially if they’re faced with a shortage of food options.
Advocating For Animals In Wildfires
Some experts argue that periodic fires are required — and even beneficial — for the survival of certain ecosystems. Similarly, certain species of animals have been shown to benefit from the aftermath of fires with increased access to food (e.g., predator species who hunt in open areas). However, as Animal Ethics points out, the acute physical and psychological harm that fires cause to countless individual animals (especially as fires become more intense and prevalent) means that they cannot be considered beneficial from the perspective of minimizing animal suffering and deaths. Certainly, the increased prevalence of wildfires exacerbated by climate change cannot be seen as natural or beneficial.
Animal advocates can get involved in a variety of ways. First, they can support the rescue, rehabilitation, and release efforts that take place after a fire, by raising awareness with the public and generating donations and volunteer support. Information spreads almost as quickly as a wildfire, so advocates can also make sure to help the public find accurate and reliable sources of information about how to help wild animals and local rehabilitation centers.
Because the topic of wildfires is still understudied, animal advocates can make a difference by calling for more research on effective rehabilitation strategies, pre- and post-fire monitoring studies, and survival strategies for different species of animals. Using this information, experts on the ground can help animals respond and recover from wildfire events more successfully.
Finally, animal advocates can push for pre-disaster protocols to be developed for protecting wild animals. When it comes to protecting service animals and companion animals in the face of a house fire, many emergency management centers (such as the National Fire Protection Association and the Humane Society in the U.S.) have “best practice” guidelines and protocols in place. Such guidelines can be developed for wild animals and wildfires, and used by first responders, volunteers, animal technicians, veterinarians, and concerned members of the public involved in emergency management.
Although wildfires are inevitable, society can mitigate their number and severity by combating climate change and being proactive in fire management. Therefore, it’s important for advocates to continue raising awareness of this ongoing crisis so researchers, policymakers, the media, and wildfire experts don’t neglect animals in their climate change and disaster response actions.