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How Does Wildlife Survive Fire?

A Walk in the Woods


September 14, 2017

Wildlife has evolved with fires over the eons. Though wildfire certainly takes its toll, not as many animals die as one might expect. However, more animals die if fires occur early in the season when babies are still being cared for or if fires are severe, as so many are today.

Raptors, like eagles and hawks, have keen eyesight and acute hearing, so are forewarned of fire before most other species. They easily escape the flames and also take advantage of the opportunity to prey on animals such as rodents, small mammals, and insects fleeing from the fire.

Birds’ respiratory systems pump far more oxygen than ours do, so smoke inhalation as well as deposition of toxins takes a greater toll. Smaller songbirds fly lower than raptors so they suffer more from smoke.

Large animals such as bear, deer, mountain lions, and wolves generally survive fires by staying ahead of the flames, but can succumb to smoke inhalation or burning if the fire is erratic or fast moving.

The rodents that don’t get picked off by predators or that don’t panic and run into the flames, can survive fire’s heat by taking refuge in their burrows. As long as they get at least four inches below the surface and their tunnels have several openings they won’t asphyxiate.

If snakes aren’t molting they can slither away or take cover in a burrow. Turtles and amphibians dig down into the muck and wait it out.

Some coping methods that don’t have good outcomes are the insect species that are drawn to fire’s warmth and therefore incinerated en masse. However, this creates a feast for many other species. Small mammals such as squirrels and porcupines that tend to flee into the treetops for safety also don’t fare well.

As our fires subside, the plants and animals will carry on. I’ll write more about that next week.

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