Wildfires are screaming across the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The human death toll is high and many people are fleeing for their lives. Over the course of this week, 21 fires have been burning around a million acres and Oregon and Washington have declared a state of emergency. Fire season in the West has expanded from five months to seven months since the 1970s and fires are burning twice as many acres, the head of the U.S. Forest Service testified last year. As climate change grips the world, the situation will only get worse. However, there are some wildlife species who can cope with wildfire and they can thrive.
Mazeika Sullivan, an ecoystem ecologist of Ohio State University said “wildlife have a long-standing relationship with fire” in these regions. “Fire is a natural part of these landscapes.”
Predators take the opportunity to eat and feast. It has been noted that bears, raccoons and raptors try to hunt the animals fleeing from the flames. Unlike humans, animals will not stay to protect their habitat, they will run and fly away from the fire that is all consuming. The birds will take to the sky, the mammals will run to a safer place, amphibians will burrow in the cool of the soil or take cover under logs and rocks and some will seek refuge in bodies of water.
Those that cannot find shelter or are outrun by the flames will inevitably perish. Often it is the small and young animals that struggle to survive in a viscous wildfire. The Koala, for instance, will try to escape up a tree and can get trapped as the flames lick up its safe haven. Jane Smith, a mycologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon, has shown that the fire kills by the immense heat it an produce. She measured temperatures as high as 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Celsius) beneath logs burning in a wildfire, and 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) a full two inches (five centimetres) below the surface.
“In the long term, these wildfires will benefit all animals,” says Leon Neuenschwander, a fire ecologist with the University of Idaho. “In the short term, some animals will be displaced.”
What is left, after the fire has exhausted itself or others have battled it down to the ground so it does not rip through towns and cities, is a changed ecosystem.
“People look at burned areas and think they’re dead. They’re not dead. They’ve just changed,” says Patricia Kennedy, a wildlife biologist at Oregon State University in Union. “It’s a whole new habitat.”
A habitat of opportunity. New young plants grow where the once dominate trees stood. Seeds have germinated and new growth sprouts through. Herbivores are attracted to the new growth and this encourages predators to return. Insects colonise the soft wood that is left after a wildfire and birds have been known to gorge on the invertebrates after it seems the fire has decimated everything. The soil is rich with the nutrients from all the old plants, providing the perfect ecosystem for a whole new forest. The cycle has started once again. Fires come and go, but nature will be resilient.
However, there has been intervention. Fire prevention is at the forefront of ecosystem protection in the US. Any fires that do spring up are put out as quickly as possible. That’s led to fewer of the types of trees and other plants that grow only in the years after a fire. It’s also caused declines in some animal species that depend on that young, post-fire habitat. Putting out brush fires can accelerate the onset of the larger fires and disrupt natural cycles. Experts blame the intensity of some current wildfires on such a phenomenon, which, along with excessive logging, can deplete old-growth forests. Wildfire is a natural process and preventing it in remote areas may be causing more damage in the short term than the long term.