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Wildfires Often Result in Survival of the Fastest

July 30, 2008

SACRAMENTO, Calif. _ As a wall of flames roared down the mountainside, a firefighter unfurled a protective tent over himself and discovered a chipmunk had scrambled into his fireproof shelter with him.

After the danger passed, the chipmunk slipped away unscathed by last summer’s Angora fire.

Not all wildlife caught in wildfires are so lucky, said Cheryl Millham, director of the Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care Center.

“The ones who can get through it are the ones who can run,” said Millham, who relayed the story she heard from a firefighter.

Her center treated injured bears and coyotes last July after the fire that destroyed homes and 3,100 acres near Lake Tahoe.

Wildfires that have charred hundreds of thousands of acres in California since June have also left untold numbers of animals to fend for themselves and have changed the habitat for many that survived.

Some, like a rattlesnake that made its home under an outhouse near Big Sur, stood no chance against fires there. Others, like deer that prefer soft new growth on the forest floor, will benefit from the flames, scientists say.

“Fire is a natural part of the landscape,” said Walter Boyce, co-director of the University of California, Davis, Wild Life Health Center.

After a fire, wild animals will show up where they don’t belong, sometimes dazed and confused, Boyce said.

But because even the most devastating fires leave patches of land untouched, wildlife will still forage close to home, he said.

In the Butte County town of Concow on the west branch of the Feather River, bears are scavenging through the forested communities where fires destroyed 50 homes, said Scott McLean, a captain with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Deer and rabbits, seemingly unsettled, are also drifting through the burned out areas, sometimes close to roads, he said.

“They’re figuring out what to do,” McLean said.

No one has reported seeing tracks of mountain lions that live in the area.

“But I know they’re out there,” he said.

Like other large, powerful runners, they’re likely to survive the fire, but their feet could be burned. And that, Boyce said, will hamper their ability to find food.

After the Angora fire, Millham’s center in Lake Tahoe was called when an injured bear crawled onto somebody’s lawn. The animal’s feet had been burned and were rotting. It had to be put down, she said.

How birds survive depends on how fast the fires move and whether they hit at night when birds are asleep, said Philip Unitt, an ornithologist with the San Diego History Museum.

During the 2003 wildfires in Southern California, scientists saw birds falling from the skies, killed by the smoke, Unitt said.

He just completed a five year-study on the effects of wildfires on birds.

Small birds, like the California thrasher, won’t survive as well as larger, migratory birds, he said.

Some birds have actually learned to work the fire.

Predators, like red-tailed hawks and vultures, have learned to hover over the advancing fire and dive for fleeing rodents.

The spring after the 2003 fires in Southern California, the bird population shifted because of the new growth, Unitt said.

A songbird called the lazuli bunting was drawn to the bugs that fed on young plants, he said. Lawrence’s goldfinch also flocked to the wildflower seeds, which will disappear as shrubs reappear, he said.

Fires that struck June 21 near the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur stranded eight California condors that the Ventana Wildlife Society is raising for release in the fall.

All eight were saved after a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter got scientists into the 80-acre sanctuary so the birds could be airlifted to safety, said Kelly Sorenson, director of the society.

Of the 43 condors living in the wild of Central California, only one is unaccounted for since the fires, he said.

Trying to feed or help injured wild animals is generally a bad idea, Boyce said.

“We’re better off leaving wild animals wild,” he said.

After the Southern California fires in 2003, well-meaning people placed feed such as hay bales along the road, Boyce said. But that drew deer into traffic and dispersed unwanted seeds from the hay.

“Where you have deer, you have mountain lions, which is another good reason not to feed deer next to your house,” he said.

Not all injured wildlife can be easily rehabilitated, he said.

“If you have a mountain lion that’s been burned in a fire, if you capture and treat it, that’s a challenge. Then there’s a problem if you release it again,” he said.

“This is what we should get people to think about: What’s important is to make sure that these animals have a place to live in the future.”

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(c) 2008, The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.).

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