In many parts of North America and Europe, it has been a dangerous spring for wildlife, due to wildfires, and it’s only mid-June! Typically, we do not directly feel the impacts of these catastrophic events, but this year much of southern Ontario was shrouded in smoke and haze; so the reality was on our doorsteps. We suddenly realized many people and animals actually live through these wildfires and must deal with the consequences, firsthand.
Wildfires are a natural and essential part of an ecosystem’s health, but forestry practices and climate impacts can turn a natural process into a disaster. There are two direct elements which affect natural things when a wildfire starts; one is obviously the fire itself and the other is the smoke which contains airborne particulate.
Let’s talk about the fire first. Fires spread fast and can outpace almost all animals. Some are fleet of foot and can run to safety, but most animals are too slow or small to reach safe ground. They must rely on their wits to survive. They might hide underground; in an existing burrow or dig a new one; swim to an island or offshore safe haven, until the danger passes; or fly away. But what if you can’t do any other these? Well, sadly, you'll likely perish. A large fire, occurring during the breeding season, will likely result in 100 percent mortality of the young animals. Adults should be able to flee but may risk death trying to shelter their young.
Seldom do we know how many are killed in a large fire. However, one study, in Australia, shows recent fires killed or displaced nearly three billion animals (143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds, and 51 million frogs) in a single fire season!
Even if the animals don’t die directly from the fires, secondary impacts, such as carbon monoxide ingestion (from the incomplete combustion of carbon-based fuels, e.g. trees), can seriously harm animals. Couple this with the particulate matter which rises in the air stream, as a result of the fire, and you have a toxic mix. Inhaling these particles in smoke, whether at the site or thousands of kilometres away, can have significant respiratory impacts on humans. It, therefore, makes sense the same impacts would be felt by wildlife.
Other less direct impacts can be documented as well. One obvious one is the loss of habitat and food sources, when a large fire rages. Forest-dwelling animals would know where to find food seasonally, but all that changes as the landscape is altered, beyond recognition, by fire. These animals now face starvation or risk of predation as they wander to unknown habitats, in search of food and shelter. Animals have a memory and return to the same place to breed annually, so if that habitat is totally destroyed, their population may take years to recover, until a new habitat is found or the old one regenerates. Another indirect impact is the release of high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen from burnt plants. These contaminants can impact water quality and result in algal blooms and oxygen depletion, negatively affecting aquatic ecosystems months after the fire is out.
Some animals are opportunistic and take advantage of a fire, such as the Black Kite in Europe, which is known to hunt the edge of fires, capturing fleeing prey. Woodpeckers are known to search out and find ‘burns,’ to feed on the many boring insects which invade the freshly burnt wood. This is a well-studied phenomenon and a delight to birdwatchers who travel to these sites, for one to two years after a fire, to see many rare or uncommon woodpeckers, such as the Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers.
To finish then; a fire can be devastating, but it can also result in new vibrant plant communities, enhanced wildlife diversity and success over time. Nature is, after all, very resilient, if we just give it a chance. But in the interim, I’m sad for the baby animals, which must have perished in the many wildfires in North America this spring.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.