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Nature Watch: Everything from Armadillos to Zebra Butterflies

Into the Flames

Thanks to the Disney classic Bambi, many Americans carry a distinct image with them of the way animals react to wildfires: thousands of terrified creatures dashing madly for a river as a wall of flames approaches. Unfortunately, this image is hardly accurate.

The truth is that while some animals die -- more often as a result of suffocation than from immolation -- most wild creatures possess survival skills that help them avoid the fatal consequences of fires.

Birds have the most obvious advantage -- the ability to fly to safe locations when flames appear. The fact that most fires strike during late summer or fall, after breeding season, means that few species of birds still have flightless young or nests to protect. Last year's Los Alamos fire was an exception. Because it occurred in mid-May, many nests with eggs or young birds were lost.

Large mammals can usually stay ahead of fires by walking. Even huge blazes seldom move faster than two miles per hour, so these animals can safely flee the advancing flames. Also, most fires don't burn evenly across a landscape, and animals can seek refuge in the areas of unburned terrain.

In the 1988 fire that swept across Yellowstone National Park, the confirmed count of large mammals killed, according to one report, was five Bison, one Black Bear, two Moose, four deer, and two hundred forty-five Elk -- a surprisingly low body count when you consider the fact that the fire involved almost 1.5 million acres.

Small animals, by contrast, most often seek refuge below ground in burrows or other cavities. Even flightless insects dig their way into the upper soil or humus as the flames pass. The fire may be burning out of control, but the temperature just a few inches below the surface remains unchanged.

One small mammal that doesn't fare well is the Wood Rat. In forested areas these rodents live in nests made of sticks and other dry vegetation placed just above ground level or low in trees, and these sites are extremely vulnerable to understory fires.

Sadly, some of the worst damage associated with fires is caused by human efforts aimed at fire control. Firebreaks created by bulldozers result in more long-term habitat degradation and associated impact on wildlife than the fires themselves. Likewise, fire retardant dropped by aircraft can poison fish and other aquatic creatures.

To make matters worse, the presence of low-flying helicopters, droning bulldozers, and fire crews often confound the efforts of animals trying to escape. In fact, one report on the Yellowstone fire states that about a hundred of the large mammals listed as killed during the fire died as a result of collisions with fire-fighting vehicles.

Yet plants and animals are more resilient and resourceful than most people think. Not only do many creatures survive wildfires, some even thrive in the wake of conflagrations.