In recent years, the worsening California wildfires raging across the Golden State have eaten up millions of acres of forestland. The resulting loss erases the habitat of forest dwelling wildlife, forcing them to vacate if they don’t succumb to the flames and heat. Already in 2021, more than 10 fires have scorched nearly 2 million acres. With fire season stretching later every year as drought plagues the state, that number is sure to grow.
The worst fire so far this year erupted in mid-July in north eastern California. The Dixie fire consumed 963,000 acres since then, wreaking havoc on wildlife in the area. One family of wolves, outfitted with GPS tracking collars, roam the devastated area. Researchers following the Lassen pack feared the worst as they watched the fire engulf greater and greater swaths of land.
When Kent Laudon, California’s wolf biologist, trekked out to the coordinates of the collars’ last pings, he feared the worst. “You head the wrong direction, you might end up trapped,” he told the Sacramento Bee. Much to his surprise, however, the wolfpack survived. He discovered a spared oasis, which included a little stream and meadow. There he observed seven of the pack, three adults and four pups. They took flight upon noticing the biologists.
Not All Wildlife as Lucky
While the Lassen pack navigated the worst of the Dixie fire, other wildlife failed to escape. In addition to the discovery of the pack’s meadow, Laudon also stumbled upon a troubling sight. An estimated two dozen cattle perished in a burned thicket nearby. The wolves had been feeding on the carcasses. Calves as well as fully grown cows riddled the ground.
Earlier in August, a black bear cub grabbed headlines after sustaining burn injuries in the Tamarack fire. Staff at the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care facility treated the cub only for him to later escape by digging his way beneath the fence. However, staff believe they later witnessed the cub climbing a tree, appearing healthy.
There are methods of survival employed by wildlife living in fire-prone areas of California. Birds fly to safety, mammals flee, some seek shelter in streams and wait out the flames. Amphibians burrow their way underground. However, these measures don’t always work. Sometimes, fire surrounds wildlife, cutting off escape routes. For those that burrow, the heat may exceed survivable temperatures, effectively cooking them in the earth.
While success stories like the Tamarack bear warm hearts, even many of the rescued animals wind up euthanized because of their injuries. For example, a bear rescued from 2020’s North Complex fire sustained such extensive damage to its paws, veterinarians faced the difficult decision to put it down. “The reality was he would never be releasable again,” said Jamie Peyton, Chief of Integrative Medicine Service at the Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.
For every story of rehabilitated bears, or racoons, or birds, dozens more untold stories of loss litter the charred landscape. Animals that escape the flames may die of smoke inhalation, or even toxic ingestion as they clean the ash from their fur. “Once it gets into their system, it can cause a number of issues including kidney and liver toxicity and heart abnormalities,” said Lorraine Barbosa, one of the veterinarians tasked with treating rescues.
Adaptations to California Wildfires
California wildfires are historically an important part of the state’s ecosystem. Long before widespread industrialization, natural fires played a vital role in the complex balance of California’s forests. Wildlife adapted to actually benefit, relying upon the cyclical burn of overgrowth. Certain types of deer and woodpeckers, for example, use burned areas to fashion homes where they mate and feed.
The plant life in burn areas uses fires to thrive, as well. Certain fungi siphon nutrients after burned trees fall and rot in the soil. Giant sequoia trees feature thick bark to survive wildfires. As the forest floor burns, space is cleared for sequoia seeds to take root. However, changing conditions pose a new threat to these ecosystems. During this year’s fire in the Sequoia National Forest, firefighters wrapped the base of giant sequoia trees in order to ensure their survival. Naturally thick bark wouldn’t be enough for the abnormally intense wildfires that have come to dominate fire season.
As climate change impacts the natural world, California wildfire season expands. In the 1970s, it typically lasted 5 months of the year. Now, that has added two additional months to span more than half the year. Too many fires with far greater intensity over a sustained period of time threaten the existence of plant and wildlife across the northwestern United States.
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
Are wolves native to California?
Part of the reason biologists fear the impact of the California wildfires on the wolf population in the state is because they’re a relatively recent addition. In the early part of the twentieth century, California’s native wolves were exterminated, clearing the state for nearly a hundred years. Not until 2011 did biologists witness a return of wolves within California’s borders. Since, concerted efforts to maintain a healthy population have helped foster the small packs of wolves that roam Northern California.
How long is fire season in California?
Traditionally, fire season begins in the month of July and peters out in October. By November, rains set in, putting an end to fire season. However, as a historic drought and worsening climate change heat up and dry out the state, fire season stretches deeper into the winter months. It’s no longer uncommon to see wildfires burning into December, even January. While fires may strike out at any time, record numbers in what should be wetter months bode poorly for the future of California’s forestlands.