- Some animals don’t just survive wildfires, they thrive in surprising and clever ways.
- Many smaller animals take cover in logs, under rocks, or by burying themselves in the dirt, while p redators like bears,raccoons, and raptors hunt down creatures trying to escape.
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Looking at the aftermath of a wildfire might make you think that no good can from it. After all, it demolishes homes, displaces thousands of humans and animals, and incinerates millions of acres of land. But believe it or not, there are more benefits to wildfires than meets the eye. For example, some wildlife don’t just survive the flames, they actually thrive in the fire’s wake.
In 2001, wildfires in New Mexico destroyed the endangered Jemez Mountains salamander’s habitat. But the population survived by hiding out in the nooks and crannies of rocks. Turns out, many amphibians and other smaller animals who can’t outrun the flames take cover in logs, under rocks, or by burying themselves in the dirt.
At the other end of the spectrum, large animals like elk will flee to streams or lakes for protection. Other animals, on the other hand, aren’t so lucky. Koalas, for example, will instinctively crawl up trees, trapping themselves in the flames.
But wildfires aren’t just a threat. They’re also an opportunity. Especially for predators like bears, raccoons, and raptors who hunt down creatures trying to escape. In fact, researchers have even seen raptors intentionally spread fires to flush out prey.
However, the real benefits of fires come after the flames die down. Pine trees, for example, open their waxy cones and release their seeds during the fire. But it’s the ashes the fire leaves behind that fertilize the soil so the seeds can grow. Moreover, the fire removes debris as well as dead and diseased plants, which exposes the ground to more sunlight in the process.
This helps seedlings sprout and can sometimes even spawn thousands of flowers in the fire’s wake. And many animals also take advantage of the freshly burned forest. The charred remains of trees provide the perfect habitats for insects and small wildlife. Wood wasps, for instance, depend on the burned trees to lay their eggs.
And other animals, like black-backed woodpeckers, will actively seek outburned forests for a tasty snack. They binge on bark beetles that live in the dead trees and then make their homes in the blackened bark. And while this delicate balance between destruction and new growth has been a way of life for millennia, human interference is changing that.
Over the last century, we stifled wildfires. So, forests became unnaturally overgrown and contained plenty of dead wood just waiting to ignite. This, along with increased temperatures and more droughts, has made wildfires more devastating and frequent than ever before in places like California.
Making it harder for plants and animals to rebound like they used to. So, if we don’t start clearing dead vegetation and helping fires run their natural course we may end up threatening forests and wildlife more than any fire ever could.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in December 2018.
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