(Author’s note: The Wild Bird Store has published two previous articles that deal with the devastating effects of wild fires. The first was after the 2003 Aspen Wildfire. The recent Bighorn Fire, still ongoing, has been visible to Tucsonans for over three weeks. Prime birding areas such as Pusch, Pima, Ventana, Bear and upper Sabino Canyons experienced the fire sweeping through those areas. Many of us have noticed birds at our feeders and baths that we are generally unaccustomed to seeing on any regular or even infrequent basis. Western Tanagers, Scott’s Orioles, Yellow Grosbeaks, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Pine Siskins, Red Crossbills, and other birds normally associated with occupying higher elevations and forest habitats may and have been observed recently in the lower Tucson basin. Keeping a fresh supply of foods and clean water will help make a difference, enabling visiting birds to thrive, not just survive. This is especially important during these hot (even record breaking!) and dry summer months. This is particularly true for the higher elevation birds that will have an extra hard time coping with temperatures beyond their normal comfort range.)
This was originally written as a stand-alone article. Now, I think of it as Part One. In case you missed it, click on this link – Forest Fires & Effects on Wildlife. However, with the spate of wildfires increasing in numbers, frequency and severity, with no letup in sight going forward, I feel revisiting this topic is timely and important. All of us who love nature, our area’s wildlife, and the critical habitat they need to survive and thrive should be aware of some of the consequences these natural disasters cause that are not well-covered in the news accounts we see in our newspapers and on the nightly television news.
In recent years, the wildfires that have been occurring in Arizona and elsewhere throughout the American West and Canada have increased in frequency and intensity. There is no single definitive explanation for why this is but two major contributing factors are the increasing effects of climate change and our long history of misguided fire suppression in our national forests and parks.
Only in recent years have forest managers come to realize that the past 100 years or so of fire suppression theory and practice has contributed mightily to the continuing trend of more and worse fires. In the past, most such fires were human caused, mostly by carelessness and ignorance. Now, however, and in future years, climate change, along with less than optimum fire-fighting practices, are increasing the severity and number of fire outbreaks. With droughts becoming more the norm, dry grasses, vegetation in general and dead and standing trees are easily ignited by dry lightning strikes and take off like, well, wildfires.
Always considered a high priority for firefighters is the protection of private property and buildings, and the humans that are threatened in those areas. Obviously, this is important and small forest and mountain communities often have volunteer fire departments as their first line of defense. Larger numbers of firefighters and equipment are quickly brought in if the fires spread quickly to try to limit the damage and extent of the fires. All of this is good and as it should be.
But, what has always concerned me, and continues to concern me, is the public’s lack of information on the devastating results to burned out habitats and the wildlife that occupy those environments. I am reprinting an apropos article we originally published, Fire on the Mountain, authored by Vivian Mac Kinnon, in the September, 2003 issue of this newsletter. This article describes, in part, the role that Director Lisa Bates and the rehabilitation experts of The Tucson Wildlife Center played in rescuing birds and animals during and after the devastating Aspen fire in Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. Reading both articles will allow for a greater understanding of the effects of wildfires on the habitat and the inhabitants. Unfortunately, I am afraid we have yet to see any letup of these occurrences in the future. On the brighter side, however, it is important to understand that these types of fires have their benefits, too. Though it is a long process for forests to regenerate themselves and for wildlife to be able to reestablish themselves and make solid returns to former habitat, fires are actually a natural part of the lifecycles they experience. Many plants and trees need such fires to help them sprout new seeds and allow native plants to thrive in future years. This phenomenon also attracts wildlife back into previously burned out areas. There is some comfort to consider that no matter how devastating the disaster, no matter how long it takes for full recovery – nature always wins in the end!
If you are interested in helping wildlife that has been adversely affected by wildfires, you can volunteer at the Tucson Wildlife Center. They are a dedicated bunch of professionals, but always need voluntary person-hours, an ongoing variety of medical and practical supplies, or cash and/or in-kind contributions and donations. They are a very valuable organization, a real Tucson asset with national recognition for their efforts and any help you can provide will be gratefully appreciated and any in-kind contribution or cash is tax deductible. Google the title of this article and a wide variety of writings from well respected and well known, as well as lesser-known scientific publications, will provide a wealth of further information on this topic.
Fire on the Mountain
By Vivian MacKinnon
They went in right behind the Hotshots. Dressed in fire-resistant NOMEX and borrowed hardhats, they walked silently through the charred forest. Some of the trees were still in flames and the Hotshots had warned them to be on the lookout for hidden pockets and holes filled with burning embers.
When pines ignite, they can get hot, really hot. In fact, the roots can literally explode in the ground leaving deep gaping holes. The holes then fill with the remains of the burning tree and smolder, sometimes for days. As the ash rains down, it hides the burning holes and there was always the risk of stepping into a hidden pit filled with red-hot coals.
The going was slow, painfully slow, but these brave folks were on a mission. Lisa Bates from the Tucson Wildlife Center and several other area animal rehabilitators had been granted the unique permission to search for injured and orphaned animals in the still burning wake of the Aspen Fire in our very own Santa Catalina Mountains.
I recently interviewed Lisa about her trips up the mountains and what she found there. As far as she knew this was the first time that wildlife rehabilitators had been given access to burned areas while the fires were still raging. In fact, National Geographic sent crews to film the rehabbers and recently featured them on its television program.
Searching through the burning forest was an experience she will not forget. What they found was an eerily silent woods, blackened and smoldering with almost no sign of animals living or dead. The lack of any animal sign was puzzling; surely, they should at least be seeing burned remains. After talking with several members of the Fire Crew, the rehabbers began to realize what must have happened.
The animals that could flee did so. These included adult birds, hoofed mammals and other critters that could cover large areas of ground quickly or were simply lucky enough to get out of the fire’s path. For the rest it was simply over and their bodies were cremated. Hardest hit were nestling birds like raptors and owls, small mammals, and other burrowing animals that may have been overcome by smoke inhalation as they hid in their burrows.
Fire crews discovered the burned remains of a black bear and two mountain lions. One of the crewmembers walked up to the charred carcass of a lion. As he touched the skull, it crumbled into dust. There were mixed emotions. Relieved that they were finding so few injured animals yet knowing that so many had perished, the rehabbers continued their searches. Then they began to find them.
They came across a female fox with four severely burned paws and a scorched belly. She did not want to leave the area but her burns made it impossible for her to care for herself. After three agonizing weeks, she was trapped and is now doing well. The Wildlife Center is hopeful that she will be releasable. They also found a very small and very young coyote pup all alone. It would never have survived without the Center’s help and one day, if all goes well, it too will be freed to roam the Santa Catalina Mountains where it was born.
“That’s the goal we work towards. We always hope to be able to release the animals back into the wild where they belong,” Lisa stated. Unfortunately, not every story has a happy ending. Some animals, whose injuries are too severe, must be put down. Others who simply cannot survive on their own become spokes-persons for wildlife through public outreach education programs.
Next, they found a female deer that was badly burned and unable to leave the immediate area. To complicate matters, she was very pregnant. Though not yet detected in Arizona, concerns about Chronic Wasting Disease made it illegal to trap and remove deer to recovery areas, so the rehabbers simply took care of her where she was. She has since had her fawn and both mother and fawn are doing well. The next wave of injured critters was the squirrels. Unable to get out of the way of slow moving emergency vehicles in Summerhaven, squirrels with scorched feet and burned skin began to trickle into the Center.
Effects of the fire were also felt in the surrounding foothills. Lisa said that unusually high numbers of Elf and Screech Owls nestlings have been found dead. She believes that they may have died of asphyxiation as the smoke filled the canyons where the nests were found. “Their weights were good and there were no signs of trauma. Smoke inhalation could be the culprit. As these birds have incredibly fast respiration rates, it would only take a short amount of time for them to suffocate.” Lisa told me. It will take a long time to know the full effects of the Aspen Fire on area wildlife.
Lisa and the others know that there are many other injured animals up there in need of help and are anxious for the trails to reopen. So far, the areas where they have been permitted to search have been extremely restricted due to safety concerns. The Tucson Wildlife Center has five pages of volunteers ready to search the trails as they open. The Center is teaming with area hiking clubs and other groups with GPS units anxious to help. Primarily the volunteers will record GPS coordinates on the injured, and then qualified rehabilitators will attempt to rescue the animals.
Having worked at Tall Timbers Fire Research Station while in college and having been in Yellowstone during the fires of 1988 and the years following, I understand on an intellectual level that fire is an integral part of many forest ecosystems. I know that for many species, like the Mexican Spotted Owls and other birds of prey, fire can enhance habitat. I know that what is good for the species in the long run can be very bad for the individual in the immediate. I also know
that when we try to suppress all wildfires, Mother Nature will have her way, sometimes with a vengeance, witness the massive fires that have been plaguing the West.
That being said, this past Fourth of July as we sat on the roof of our midtown abode to watch the fireworks shows, we found that we could not enjoy them. I kept thinking about the Red-tailed Hawk I had watched wrestle a gopher snake into submission at the Prison Camp trailhead, all the little birds that constantly delighted us at Molino Basin and the beautiful rainbow of hummingbirds in Summerhaven. We found that we could not take our eyes of our mountains. They were burning and burning hard. What would happen to our wild friends up there? Would they survive? Would they be able to find new territory? There was no easy answer. All we could do was chant silently to ourselves, “Good for the species, bad for the individual. Good for the species, bad for the individual,” and quietly hope that the rains would come.
One of several area wildlife rehabilitation groups, the Tucson Wildlife Center is a non-profit corporation funded almost entirely through the generous contributions of area residents. If you would like to help the animals injured in the fire, and the animals injured year round (usually through contact with humans), send your tax-deductible donations to The Tucson Wildlife Center, P.O. Box 18320, Tucson, Arizona 85731. They also need medical supplies, foods and volunteers. Please check out their website at www.tucsonwildlife.com, or call the Center at (520) 290-9453 to make sure they can use your supplies. All money and supplies go directly toward the recovery and rehabilitation of area wildlife. The Wild Bird Store will be carrying the Tucson Wildlife Center’s annual fundraising calendar, which features local rescues and their stories.