California's Wildlife Can Handle Fires – Human Encroachment Is the Problem

3 min
A young gray fox pants while taking cover under a guard rail on the side of the road during 108-degree heat as the Carr Fire raged near Whiskeytown on July 27, 2018. (Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

At 5:33 a.m. on May 13, 2017, Steven Sergeant was standing at the edge of Mississippi Lake in Henry W. Coe State Park southeast of San Jose. The sun was just starting to peek over the horizon.

You could hear the morning chorus of birds, fish jumping in the lake, black-tailed jackrabbits beginning to stir. Sergeant set up his recording gear to capture it all.

Earlier this week, the area around that lake was engulfed by the massive SCU Lightning Complex wildfire. About 40,000 acres of Henry Coe burned, half of the entire park. That actually made Wes Gray, a natural resource manager for California State Parks, pretty happy.

“From the ecological standpoint,” he said, “I think the plants and animals are going to see a great benefit from this fire at Henry Coe.”

Gray said you couldn’t really have asked for a better fire, which can be hard to safely introduce in a state park.

“We’re always trying to reintroduce fire,” Gray said, “because all of the plant and animal communities in California are fire adapted.”

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With hundreds of wildfires currently burning across California, you may have found yourself wondering how the state’s wildlife is coping. The answer is better than you might imagine, given how the fires have impacted humans and the general apocalyptic feeling many of us have with the current state of the world.

Take redwoods. Much of Big Basin Redwoods State Park north of Santa Cruz was burned by the CZU Lightning Complex. Scientists say most of the redwoods will be fine. They have flame-resistant bark and super-high canopies that avoid flame. They actually need some fire. It clears competitors and makes great sequoia seeds germinate.

But what about the rest of California's wildlife?

Part of Henry W. Coe State Park burned by the SCU Lightning Complex fires of 2020
Part of Henry W. Coe State Park burned by the SCU Lightning Complex fires of 2020 (Courtesy of Wes Gray)

Birds

Let’s start with birds. Adult birds simply fly away, but that leaves baby birds to face the flames on their own. That brings us to California condors, a critically endangered species.

There are currently four baby condors missing near Big Sur. That sounds bad. But it actually may not be a tragedy.

According to the Ventana Wildlife Society, most baby condors survive wildfires, especially if their nests happen to be located in redwoods. A Big Sur condor sanctuary, however, did not survive the latest round of fire. The whole thing burned, and now the Ventana Wildlife Society is seeking donations to rebuild.

Small Mammals

What about small mammals like squirrels, rabbits and chipmunks?

They either flee to large rocky areas – yes, picture dozens of furry fellows perched on rocks surrounded by flame – or they burrow underground. Scientists say a squirrel den is a pretty safe place for most fires. Some are up to 6 feet deep.

Who knows, that far down, you could sleep right through a fire. Especially if it burned through the area fast.

Large Mammals

Elk and deer will take refuge in a stream, or try to outrun the flames. Gray, the state park natural resource manager, said that’s harder in fires with high winds or when fires are moving uphill. Sometimes then an animal will get trapped and burned.

Big predators are some of the worst off when it comes to wildfires.

It’s not a problem of speed. Bobcats and mountain lions can outrun most fires. But the question is, where do they go? Human development has made that much harder to answer.

“If there are a lot of developed areas around a fire, that’s a problem because there is no place for these animals to go to," said Jon Keeley, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Humans have already destroyed so much habitat in California.

Over a quarter of the state's landmass is used for agriculture, 96% of the state's original old-growth coast redwoodshave been logged, an estimated 90% of wetlands destroyed, and the state is carved up by 394,000 miles of road.

So when a fire destroys habitat, it’s hard for predators to find food. That’s why you might see them roaming around streets and populated areas after a fire.

"In most metropolitan areas they see plenty of examples of wildlife coming out of wildland areas simply for lack of food,” Gray said. Sometimes a mountain lion survives a wildfire, only to die from starvation.

This is the real danger — that human-caused climate change and development that encroaches into woodlands, wetlands and deserts, has destroyed too much habitat for mountain lions, condors and the like to survive, especially as wildfires displace them from what little home they have left.