This photo has circulated around the internet for some time, but in view of the recent fires in California, seems more dramatic than ever. While the loss of lives and property due to a wildfire is tragic, what happens to the animals caught in the path of these fires?
Animals are often more resourceful and resilient than most people think. While some animals die, most often from suffocation, most wild animals have the survival skills necessary to avoid a tragedy.
Birds, of course, can fly to a safe location. As most fires take place during the last summer or fall, breeding season has past and most no longer have nests or fledglings to protect. Larger animals are usually able to stay ahead of a fire. Even the largest of fires rarely moves faster than two miles an hour, and most fires don’t burn evenly across a landscape. Animals can either walk away or find refuge in areas untouched by the fire. When fire struck Yellowstone National Park in 1988 the loss of large mammals killed was relatively small. According to one report, five bison, one black bear, two moose, four deer, and two hundred forty-five elk died, surprising in a fire that covered almost 1.5 million acres.
Smaller animals often find shelter below ground, bunkering down in burrows or other cavities. Even flightless insects will burrow into the upper soil. No matter how hot it is above ground, the temperature just a few inches below the surface remains unchanged. Small animals that make nests of sticks and other dry vegetation above ground level or in the understory of trees, often don’t fare as well.
Unfortunately, some of the worst damage associated with fires is caused by people working fire control. Firebreaks can cause long-term habitat degradation. Fire retardants can poison fish and other aquatic creatures. Low-flying aircraft, noisy earth moving equipment and fire fighters often inadvertently confuse animals trying to escape. In fact, a report on the Yellowstone fire estimated about a hundred of the large mammals listed as dying during the fire died as a result of collisions with fire-fighting vehicles.