Saving Earth: How 2018 California wildfires impacted wildlife and what is being done to prevent further damage

The magnitude at which the fires spread may lead to lower rates of survival for animals

                            Saving Earth: How 2018 California wildfires impacted wildlife and what is being done to prevent further damage
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Planet Earth is in dire need of solutions. Astronomer Carl Sagan once said that we have a responsibility "to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." Our campaign Saving Earth focuses on nature and wildlife conservation and this column will feature stories on the pressing needs of our planet and hopefulness of our fight.

California has seen many wildfires in its history, some more damaging than others. But the 2018 fires happened to be one of the most devastating ones that the Golden State has been plagued with. Many areas across the state are prone to naturally hot, dry weather that are a major fire hazard throughout each year. However, the fires can also be largely attributed to the deliberate decisions and unseen ramifications of rapid urban development over decades that turned many parts of the state into an easily combustible powder keg. California is a hotbed of wildfires, but it is important to note that they are a normal phenomenon across the US and around the world.

While they cause mass destruction, they are also essential for rejuvenating the nutrients in the soil, getting rid of the decay, and also helps varied species of plants to reproduce. In hindsight, wildfires also contribute to global warming, as flames coursing through the vast expanse of forest area and vegetation send greenhouse gases and particulates into the air.

A series of large wildfires erupted across California between mid-July and August 2018, mostly in the northern part of the state. The most destructive out of them was the Carr Fire and the Mendocino Complex Fire and following the extensive inflammation that occurred, a national disaster was declared in Northern California in August. Then, Camp Fire in the Northern California foothills and the Woolsey and Hill fires northwest of Los Angeles started in November, as the humidity plummeted and strong winds further aggravated the conditions whipping over arid vegetation. There were at least 85 fatalities, while 18,000 structures were destroyed, making it the state's most destructive wildfire to date. At the site of the fires, firefighters and first-responders responded 35 mph winds that would heighten to 60-70 mph later. These winds, although seasonal, were fuelled more by human activity than climate change.

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The Mediterranean climate in California is characterized by two seasons, that is, a long dry summer and a mild, wet winter. While it boosts agricultural activities, the dry summers are almost always prone to spark wildfires. In the past, autumn rains would have easily extinguished the Northern California fires, but the situation in 2018 was quite different. There was hardly any rainfall and the vegetation was pretty much parched, as it normally would be at the peak of summer. The wildfires burned through grasses and shrubs, wreaking havoc, and devastating life and property. Perhaps the most severe losses and damages were incurred by the arrayed wildlife that called the forests and areas that burned down their home. It is not abnormal for large patches of high-risk fires to impede an ecosystem's recovery, but it also potentially undermines conservation of the native biodiversity by long-term or even perpetual loss of endemic vegetation and in its stead, expansion of non-native and invasive species, as well as the long-term or permanent loss of habitat for the endemic fauna. 

UCLA professor H Bradley Shaffer, from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, told the Daily Bruin that the magnitude at which the fires spread may lead to lower rates of survival for animals. “Some animals hide underground during the fire and come out when it is finished,” Shaffer said. “The higher intensity of the fire leads to higher temperature, which might be too hot for some small animals and they will die underground," he added. Bigger animals tend to escape fires rather quickly, but they also suffer major losses because their habitats are destroyed. Quoting an example from the fires that broke out in the Santa Monica mountains in May 2020, Shaffer observed that all but one of the dozen mountain lions living in the area pulled through. But its survival is threatened by the major loss of habitat and food scarcities. “Sixty percent of the wildland the mountain lions reside (on) are burnt, so a similar population are now sharing much smaller habitat. … Since the mountain lions eat deer, the burning of the grassland result in less deer, and thus less food for the lions,” Shaffer elucidated. 

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In addition, Shaffer explained that man-made structures like cities and highways are a disruption to natural habitats and may become a hindrance to wildlife recovering from the wildfires. “When one part of the habitat gets burnt and the animal died, the population in surrounding areas will usually repopulate the area, … but constructions such freeways now might isolate the burnt area and leaves no corridor for repopulation,” Shaffer said. “The damage then will be permanent.” In a twisted turn of events, fires also benefit predators preying on fleeing creatures and have led some species to even evolve to adapt to them. For example, raptors, bears, or raccoons have been found to hunt animals escaping from the fires. In these regions, "Wildlife have a long-standing relationship with fire," ecosystem ecologist Mazeika Sullivan, Ohio State University told National Geographic in an interview. "Fire is a natural part of these landscapes."

While many animals like birds, mammals, amphibians or small creatures that burrow underground hide in logs, or take refuge under rocks can escape the heat, others take cover in streams and lakes. But that doesn't mean wildlife don't succumb to the flames and smoke erupting from the wildfires. Young and small animals are, particularly at risk. While scientists don't have an accurate estimate of the number of animals that die each year in wildfires they are sure that they haven't threatened a total population wipe-out of any species. In the aftermath of the California wildfires of 2018, animal lovers from across the state came together in frantic efforts to save thousands of animals fleeing inflamed forests and their natural habitats. The Federal government's wildfire response, the Suppression Program includes operations for extinguishing and managing wildfires, preventing movement of unwanted fires, and aid in the improvement of wildlife habitats.

Mark Peterson gives water to goats that he saved from his home that was destroyed the Carr Fire on July 27, 2018, in Redding, California (Getty Images)

Many wildlife rehabilitation and advocacy groups in Southern California have dedicated themselves to working with animals who were displaced by the fires. Project Wildlife in San Diego, All Wildlife Rescue, and Education in Long Beach and California Wildlife Centre are among those helping in the cause. Furthermore, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has an obligation to protect and promote the habitat for plants and wildlife, especially during natural disasters. In times like these, bedrock policies like the Endangered Species Act act as a critical support structure for ecosystems at risk, including forests. With global warming and unpredicted bouts in climate change, wildfires can be only foreseen as getting worse by the year. The need for more funding and flexibility in addressing urgent issues at a quicker pace and more effectively is dire. The wildfires of 2018 were reportedly some 30 percent longer than the average over the last decade.

The growing inferno ravaged the state to a deadly extent, and it was clear at that point that this wasn't the work of nature alone. Decades of human activity infringing upon nature's resources and the climate are also more or less to blame. If anything it intensified the risks, damages, and consequences from the fires. These risks only continue to soar, with each passing year and the future could hold even more lethal, frequent and expensive blazes. 

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