The Secondary Burn: Wildfires and the Animals that Experience Them


Wildfires in the United States clear between 4 and 5 million acres of land per year. In recent years, this number has only gone up and climate change ensures that it will not be decreasing anytime soon. This may make us wonder, how do animals living in the woods respond to fire? Looking for the answer, surprisingly, we find several reassuring articles on this topic, saying that most animals escape, and that wildfires are even a necessary part of a working ecosystem, causing some species to thrive after the flames have died.

This picture of animal safety clashes with the overwhelming experience of workers at animal rehabilitation operations who, after a fire, take in many animals with burned skin and seared feathers. People have described finding young cottontail rabbits in their nest, screaming in pain after the fire, or finding an elk six weeks after the fire, with severe burns and partially burned off hooves, barely capable of movement, or an almost unrecognizable possum with burned feet and pelt, blindly stumbling around. These individuals were lucky enough that a human found them and was able to euthanize them, but many animals are not so fortunate and we will never hear their stories.

These instances illustrate how a reassuring local article does not do justice to the grave suffering of the victims of forest fire. When reporting on a disaster, such as a forest fire, we ought to focus on the stories of the victims, rather than pointing out that a large portion, even a majority, manages to escape.

When reporters cover human victims of fires, they do not make this mistake. A newscaster would never remark that a fire was not a tragedy because only 5 percent of a town’s inhabitants perished as a consequence. Human death is rightfully described as tragic, and the focus is on those worse off, dead or injured, rather than those who managed to escape unscathed. The authors who claim that a forest fire is beneficial for the ecosystem do not care about individuals; they care about abstract topics, such as species conservation and biodiversity. An entire species, or population, may bounce back from fire-caused habitat destruction, but many individuals will have endured extreme suffering as a result.

The article does point to a not well understood fact about wildfire survivability. Previous to modern research, it was understood by the public that many animals survive wildfires, either by fleeing or by taking shelter. In a massive fire in 1988 in Yellowstone Park, the number of carcasses found of large mammals such as elks and bisons, only accounted for nearly 1% of the population. While it is terrific that this number is lower than our expectations, that 1% amounts to 373 individuals who died tragically during the fire.

For small mammals and reptiles, the mortality rate is expected to be higher, but it is more difficult to estimate because these smaller animals often look for shelter between rocks or in holes underground and are not as easily visible when they have died. Most of them however are expected to survive.

Insects also attempt to  flee the scene. As one Australian firefighter said: "You get overrun by this wave of creepy crawlies walking ahead of the fire.”  Presumably many insects do not make it.

The intuition may be that fishes and aquatic animals are protected from the fire by their natural habitat, but the truth is that aquatic animals are still highly vulnerable during fires as, after the fire, ash washes into the creeks, suffocating the fishes both by ash entering their gills and the ash depleting oxygen in the water. It is the effect of these secondary results of wildfires that are the most significant. While large parts of the habitat are destroyed or polluted, animals are unable to find food or shelter themselves from predators.

Eventually vegetation does return to the burned area. The old trees and built-up needles have been turned into nutritious soil by the fire, and make room for fresh new plants to flourish, creating space for animal species, new and old, to thrive in the growth. This change in animal diversity can have both positive and negative long-term impacts on the welfare of wild animals, depending on which species repopulate the area. Some species experience naturally high rates of child mortality and illness, while others are built to only have a few offspring, allowing them to be more devoted and leading the babies to live longer lives. Theoretically, an ecosystem with the latter species type would be more beneficial to the animals than an ecosystem with the first group, but it is not clear how wildfire affects this change.

Even though wildfires are not inflicting the level of animal suffering as many people believe, and many animals are resilient enough to survive them, fires still cause horrible suffering to many individual wild inhabitants. While immediate effects of a fire are strongly negative, the change in the ecosystem may be for better or worse and may have a more significant impact on animal welfare than the fire itself.

Marianne van der Werf