Wild Animals And Wildfires
Wild animals have long faced many challenges to their survival: they have to find water and food without becoming another animal’s lunch; they need to find a mate and possibly safe shelter in which to raise young; natural phenomena such as tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, and floods could prove disastrous for their habitats. But in recent years, a new threat has emerged: catastrophic wildfires of immense proportions. These fires can cause untold suffering for wildlife. They endure burns, loss of mates and young, and destruction of their environment. They may also be forced to flee, which presents its own dangers.
The authors of this article reviewed the literature on the impacts of wildfire on wild animals, with the premise that how different animals respond to fire depends on their life histories, evolutionary adaptation to fire, and individual responses to stress. Even so, it’s safe to assume that wildfires compromise animal welfare. Future wildfires will likely become more intense as a result of the global increase in invasive grasslands, along with climate change. In addition to altering their distribution, abundance, and genetic diversity, wildfire affects animals in the following ways.
- Injuries and mortality – Mammals, birds, insects, fishes, and amphibians are all vulnerable to fires. Asphyxiation is the most frequent cause of death. Burns to the face and limbs are common. Wild animals can also suffer injuries from collisions with vehicles when fleeing from flames. Rescue workers should assess animals for injuries, smoke inhalation, and other trauma. Overall species mortality depends on mobility, shelter use, dietary flexibility, and body size.
- Acute heat stress response – The specific characteristics of the fire, habitat, life history traits, and individual coping mechanisms all affect how wild animals respond to fire. Spring and summer are prime times for both wildfire and breeding and reproduction. Hence, fires during this period can impair population recovery. Rescuers can aid survival through simple means such as supplying water in species-appropriate locations.
- Flight from fire – Wildfire can drastically alter habitats, resulting in less vegetation, cover, or food. These changes prompt animals to move from burned to unburned areas. However, less mobile animals, such as amphibians or small rodents, may be unable to move long distances and thus may suffer greatly from the aftereffects of fire. Since wildfire can leave unburned areas or islands inside a fire perimeter, rescuers could focus on these areas for monitoring, supplementation, and rescue. We also need to learn more about how fire affects burrows where certain species live or take cover.
- Habitat modification – After a wildfire, habitats can change dramatically. Fire alters soil composition and burned materials deposit ash and charcoal. Heat and wind increase. Trees fall, and foliage becomes less vertically stratified. Food availability changes, both in type and quantity. These impacts alter the variety and numbers of animals that can survive in the burn area.
- Predation risks – After fires, more open habitat means that animals are more visible. While this may benefit predators, their prey has a harder time hiding. Wolves, red foxes, feral cats, and raptors have all shown affinities for burned areas. Post-fire predation increases dangers for native mammals and limits their recovery.
Researchers also examined animal rescue work related to wildfires. Animals can benefit from effective rehabilitation and release during fires, along with post-fire monitoring. Information gathered during these activities can educate veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitation personnel, and the public on how to best preserve wildlife welfare in the face of fires.
Finally, the authors detail a variety of future research and other activities that could improve animal welfare. Technology such as drones, along with public information about who to contact for wildlife aid, could improve rescuers’ ability to help wild animals in danger from a fire’s approach. Research on specific impacts of fire on animal behavior, pollinators, animal stress responses, aquatic animals, food availability, and predator behavior would be valuable, as would studies on the effects of post-fire activities such as logging. These are just a few highlights from an extensive list, but they provide advocates with many opportunities to improve the lives of wildlife facing the increasing threat of wildfire.