Do Animals Need More Help in Escaping Wildfires?

The California Rim fire is still raging around Yosemite National Park in California, and everyone who has heard about it shares health and environmental wellness concerns for those in the area. However, anthropologist and writer Cherise Udell not only heard about it last week, she came into contact with the devastating beast.


According to Udell, ‘My family was on our way to the Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp…when we were stopped by park rangers: “No traffic is going through the West Gate due to a fire that suddenly exploded from 50 acres to 800 and jumped the highway.” At that point, we had no doubt the fire was not only quickly growing, but also dangerously close, as the darkened smokey afternoon sky was now raining ash upon our car. Turning around was obviously the only option…After a 12-hour drive, I was lamenting the fact that we were only 20 minutes away from Tuolumne Family Camp and yet so far, now that a blazing fire stood between us and a week of fun, when my youngest daughter exclaimed in a very worried voice, “But Mama, where will all of the forest animals go?”


For Udell, the answer came easily, but did not sit well with her for long. ‘I told her that animals have much better eyes, ears and noses than we do and when they sensed the danger they quickly fled to safety,’ she says. ‘That is what I guessed to be true anyhow, and it seemed like the best thing to say to a now very anxious 7-year old child watching ash and smoke swirl around us. But silently again, I wondered, where DO all of the animals go? Are they able to escape or do fire-fighters find gruesome carcass after carcass as they themselves chase the fire “mopping” up any hot spots that could flare up again?’


This led Udell on a journey to find the answer to her daughter’s question, thankfully finding that her original summation had been pretty accurate; in the aftermath of a forest fire surprisingly few animals are found dead. ‘Animals, whether feathered, furred or scaled have memory of fire embedded in their limbic brains,’ Udell explains. ‘The first hint of smoke, the first whoosh of dry grass going up in flames or the popping of wood are easily registered by wild animals at great distances, so rarely are they completely caught off guard and thus they have plenty of time to flee. The most vulnerable, of course, are the old, the very young and the sick or injured. Those that can flee by wing, foot, hooves or slither, do so, while others not so fast or just too small, burrow underground and wait for the impending disaster to pass overhead.’


Udell concludes, ‘Animals, forests and forest fires are all part of a natural healthy cycle – and in fact many plants and animals depend on naturally occurring wildfire to flourish. For example, many pine tree require the intense heat of a forest fire to open their cones and release their seeds. No fire, no new trees. The Red Cockaded Woodpecker, the Swainson’s Warbler, many types of quail, foxes, bears, squirrels and other animals depend on fire to keep undergrowth in check. Consequently, all forest-dwelling plants and animals have co-evolved with the inevitable fires and have found ways to adapt.’ Mike McMillan with the US Fish and Wildlife Service confirms that it’s ‘not really’ necessary for us to help animals escape from wildfires, although he does add that ‘it is up to all of us to take care of our precious public lands, and the amazing creatures that live there.’

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