What do the wildfires mean for animals?

A rescued horse placed in California’s rescue ranch: The Gentle Barn on June 5th, 2019. Sangeetha Koomar/Lariat

 “All animals need four things: food, water, cover, and space. All of this must be available in the proper types and amounts for an animal’s health and survival. Each species has its own unique set of requirements which are collectively known as its habitat.” reported Cal Fire on Sept. 26 regarding the current wildfires. 

More than 25 major wildfires raged across California beginning Sept. 6th. In over 75 days, the fires destroyed 3.6 million acres of land, 7,600 structures fell and 100’s of animals were endangered. 

Volunteers from many groups such as California’s North Valley Animal Disaster Group have been rescuing livestock, pets, and even wild animals. 

“Our days were longer in the beginning when the fires were active,” said Susan Bennett, a volunteer member of the North Valley Animal Disaster Group’s Evacuation team.  “We deployed probably anywhere over 15-20 teams out on the field. The days in the beginning were anywhere from 12 to 14, maybe 16 hours just to answer as many calls as we could.”

The North Valley Animal Disaster Group specializes in rescuing pets, livestock, as well as many other domesticated animals. With the fires amassing to such intensity, many farmers and owners have no choice but to leave animals behind. 

“We have over 700 animals in what we are calling, being sheltered in place,” Bennett said. “What that means is they are at their place, contained and are not in any imminent danger. We continue to send teams to take care, feed and water them, we check on their welfare until their owners are able to come and the animals can return back to their care.”

Due to how unexpected fires are these days, it is imperative that every living member is taken care of. Therefore, preparedness and education play key roles in regards to fire safety.

“We really try to educate people about being prepared,” Bennett said. “So knowing that disasters can happen, and the more that you can prepare ahead of time, the more prepared you will be when the disaster happens. We encourage people that if you have large livestock make sure they are comfortable being loaded into a trailer. Teach your animals how to load if they are large, if you have dogs and cats prepare a to-go bag so that when you need to leave you can grab your bags and animals and go.”

It’s unclear how many animals have died, as it is hard for scientists to give a consistent number with the fires spreading at random times.  

“Until we get the actual reports back from the National Wildlife Health Center, we can’t say what is happening or is not happening,” said Tristanna Beckford, communications director at the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to Wired Magazine on Sept. 19.

What can be determined is that even species that have evolved to thrive in habitats that burn regularly are facing new challenges such as adapting to a new environment.

“We are looking at a fire that is completely going to change the forest and a fire that is going to completely change an animal’s ecosystem.” said Abby Sirulnik, biology professor at Saddleback College. “Ultimately it is going to be the beginning of secondary succession. These are very hot fires, if it were a kind of regular fire we would see trees surviving and seeds cracking open, providing vegetation for the animals. But this one might be so hot, that we are not going to see a lot of forest as we would like to.”

Many animals rely on their environment’s trees and other fauna in order to survive, but with the fires becoming longer and hotter, landscapes are increasingly becoming drier, and more susceptible to burn. The majority of California’s plant life has a little to no chance of regrowth. 

“Trees can only regrow after a normal fire,” Sirulnik said. “If it is a really hot fire, like the ones we are seeing right now, then those fires can burn what is underground as well. If the trees are burned underground, they cannot sprout back. So may sprout, but most of our enormous trees will not, and as a result we will see a decrease in animals due to loss of habitat or food availability.”

The National Geographic reported on Sept. 8 that the fires have reportedly gotten hotter and even longer in comparison to previous years. If the plants and vegetation do not grow again, the animals will have scarce access to resources.Where there is no room or wet land for plants to grow again comes a loss of vegetation and habitats for animals. 

“Our planet is changing very, very quickly,” Sirulnik said. “Faster than our policies can keep up with. We can either accept that our planet as we knew it is not going to be the same and in the future learn how to survive in a new way, or if we want to keep our planet the way we knew it, then we have to have policies happen very quickly and either way people have to change the way they live.”