Turns out, the porcupines had extensive burns to their paws, fur, quills and faces after a wildfire burned through the area. Wildlife centers in the U.S. West are caring for animals that weren’t able to flee the flames or are looking for food in burned-over places.
An emaciated turkey vulture recently found on the Lake Tahoe shore couldn’t fly, likely because food isn’t as plentiful in burned areas, said Denise Upton, the animal care director at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.
“That’s what we’re seeing in the aftermath of the fires — just animals that are having a hard time and being pushed into areas they are not traditionally in,” she said. Not necessarily either, says Brian Wolfer, the game program manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It’s a disturbance on the landscape that changes habitat,” he said.
Some species benefit from wildfire, such as raptors that hunt rodents running from the flames, beetles that move into dead wood and lay eggs, and woodpeckers that feed on them and nest in hollow trees. Fire exposes new grass, shrubs and vegetation in the flowering stage that feed elk and deer. When food sources are plentiful, female deer produce more milk and fawns grow faster, Wolfer said.
On the flip side, animals that depend on old growth forests can struggle for decades trying to find suitable habitat if trees fall victim to fire, Wolfer said. If sagebrush burns, sage grouse won’t have food in winter or a place to hide from predators and raise their young, he said.
“In the years that follow, you see reduced survival and, over time, that population starts to decline,” he said. Some wildfires burn in a mosaic, preserving some habitat.
But the hotter and faster they burn, the harder it is for less mobile animals to find suitable habitat, he said. Mice, squirrels and other burrowing animals dig into cooler ground, bears climb trees, deer and bobcats run, small animals take cover in logs and birds fly to escape the flames, heat and smoke. “They almost seem to have a sixth sense to it,” said Julia Camp, a resources manager for the Coconino National Forest in northern Arizona. “A lot of times their response is quicker than ours.”
Firefighters have spotted tortoises with singed feet at the edge of wildfires, snakes slithering out from the woods and frail red-tailed hawks on the ground. Biologists can take precautionary measures, like moving introductory pens for Mexican gray wolves or scooping up threatened or endangered fish if they know a fire is approaching, Camp said.
In 2012, a team of biologists went in after a massive lightning-sparked wildfire in the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico to save Gila trout from potential floods of ash, soil and charred debris that would come with heavy rainfall. The fish were sent to hatcheries that replicated their habitat until they could be returned. Some animals don’t survive wildfires, but their deaths don’t greatly affect the overall population, wildlife officials say.