Educational Series: Massive Wildfires are Burning Wild Animals Alive

By Nick Engelfried
From the Pacific Northwest, to New York, to New England, vast areas of the United States have already suffered this summer from smoky conditions caused by raging wildfires, largely located in Canada. In early June, the smoke blanketing New York City resulted in the metropolitan area temporarily claiming the dubious prize for second-worst air quality in the world, outranked only by Delhi, India. The fires have forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes and brought hazardous breathing conditions to parts of the continent unused to dealing with smoky skies. However, this year’s North American fire season may soon come to seem like the new normal in a world being reshaped by climate change. And while most media accounts have focused on the human impact of the fires, it is important to remember they have a profound effect on animals, too.

Anyone familiar with Smokey Bear (also known as “Smokey the Bear”) knows fires can do deadly harm to a forest’s wild inhabitants. However, our understanding of the role fire plays in natural ecosystems has evolved significantly since the iconic fictional bear first began warning campers and hikers about its hazards. The Smokey character originated as part of a Forest Service campaign to discourage accidental forest fires in the 1940s, when a shortage of firefighters during World War II made this an especially urgent concern. Smokey’s admonition that “Only you can prevent forest fires” became famous soon after its introduction in 1947 and reminded the public about how their actions impact wild animals.

In the decades since Smokey’s creation, ecologists and foresters have come to realize that fires are in fact an important part of the natural forest cycle. Although large fires certainly can harm animals who get caught in their path, overall fires help create good wildlife habitat by weeding out sick trees, creating space for new plant life to grow, and returning nutrients to the soil. The problem is that humans have caused a massive increase in the frequency and severity of large wildfires, both by directly igniting them through carelessness, and–even more importantly–by altering Earth’s climate such that hotter, drier conditions have given rise to more damaging fire seasons. The implications for wildlife are not good.

There are profound differences between the smaller, or “low-intensity” fires that have swept across forests in North America for thousands of years, and the more damaging high-intensity fires which have become increasingly common in recent decades. Small fires tend to mainly affect the forest floor and understory, clearing out brush and small trees while leaving larger trees mostly intact. In Western North America, where natural fires are a regular occurrence, trees like Douglas-firs and Ponderosa pines have evolved thick bark that protects the living tissue underneath and allows the tree to emerge from a small fire unscathed. New plant life that emerges in the wake of a fire provides food for deer, elk, and other herbivores, while fresh ash helps fertilize the soil.

In recognition of this newer understanding of fire’s role, in 2001 the Forest Service revised Smokey Bear’s signature slogan to “Only you can prevent wildfires.” According to the official Smokey Bear website, the change was made “to clarify that Smokey is promoting the prevention of unwanted and unplanned outdoor fires,” rather than those that are beneficial to the forest ecosystem. Yet, while we now recognize how low-intensity fires end up benefiting wildlife and the forests they inhabit, a very different scenario unfolds during large, high-intensity fires like those that have swept across large parts of North America this year.

Small fires usually leave the upper branches intact, but high-intensity wildfires often leap into the forest canopy, burning trees from top to bottom so they can no longer photosynthesize. Instead of only destroying small or sick trees, these types of fire events can kill off whole swaths of forest. Even the underground roots of plants are baked to death by the extremely hot temperatures, making regeneration of plant life difficult. Instead of being incorporated into the soil, ash washes off the baked, hardened dirt, resulting in a loss of crucial nutrients from the ecosystem. Herbivore animals struggle to find food, while carnivores suffer from the drop in abundance of their prey.

Animals who cannot escape in time from a raging wildfire die an even crueler death, perishing in agony in the flames and smoke–and for threatened or endangered wildlife, a fire in the wrong place can be disastrous for the entire species. Scientists believe that fully 50% of the endangered pygmy rabbits in Washington perished in fires in 2020, an especially bad year for intense wildfires in the U.S. More than 30% of the sharp-tailed grouse and sage grouse in Washington are believed to have met a similar fate that same year.

Other parts of the world have also seen devastating impacts on wildlife from increasingly severe fires in recent years. In 2020, almost seventeen million animals died in a rare spate of fires in the Pantanal, a wetland region that includes parts of Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay. In Australia, the unusually intense 2019-2020 fire season roasted alive or left homeless nearly three billion animals including imperiled species like koalas. It often takes years for researchers to fully understand the true impact a fire has had on wildlife, so it may be a long time before we know the extent of the damage from this year’s North American fires. However, what is clear is that the combination of more devastating fire seasons all over the world, on top of other human-caused pressures like habitat loss, now threaten the survival of entire animal species.

So, what is to be done about the devastating impact of out-of-control fires on wildlife? First and perhaps foremost, we must confront the root causes of climate change that are making the problem worse. This means shifting away from dependence on fossil fuels as well as adopting sustainable farming practices. At the same time, we need to recognize that decades of logging and poor forest management have left forests more vulnerable to fire than they would otherwise be. Old-growth forests with plenty of big, mature trees are less likely to catch fire than younger forests, and likely to survive with less damage when a fire does start. Protecting remaining old-growth while allowing previously logged forests to recover must be another key part of humanity’s response to the fire crisis.

If this summer has shown us anything, it is that out-of-control fires made worse by climate change have become a continent-wide problem. From small towns to the country’s largest urban centers, people and animals in all parts of the U.S. have witnessed the deadly consequences of climate change and unsustainable logging firsthand. We now have a chance to learn from past mistakes and chart a new course forward for our forests and the animals who inhabit them–if we can act in time.

Photo credit: Cameron Strandberg

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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