As climate change worsens, wildfires are getting more severe and common. Already in recent history, millions of animals have been killed by fires in Australia, California and Brazil, among other places around the world. The fires don’t discriminate based on species, affecting all animals in their path.
Let’s take a look at how wildfires affect animals, and what we might do to help.
Types of Animals Affected by Wildfires
During a wildfire, no animal is safe. As vegetation burns, the homes of wild animals are destroyed as they flee from the fire, many not moving fast enough to escape. Meanwhile, livestock on farms and companion animals are often left behind as people flee to fend for themselves.
How Wildfires Impact Wildlife and Ecosystems
When you combine shrinking forested areas and natural habitats with an average of four percent of the world’s surface burning every single year, it’s no surprise that the impact of fires on wildlife and ecosystems are profound.
Displacement and Loss of Habitat
Given the burning of habitats, the destruction of old growth and changes to the ecosystem, it’s no surprise that many animals are displaced.
In 2020, jaguars in Pantanal, Brazil lost more than two thirds of their habitat to fires. They were forced to search for new habitats, many of them starving or experiencing dehydration, unable to find a new home with the resources they needed. As a result, several members of this already-threatened species perished.
Closer Contact with Humans
As native habitats burn, animals are forced to find new places to live. Oftentimes, those places are uncomfortably close to existing human populations, leading to conflict.
Being in conflict with people is dangerous for wild animals; if they become too much of a nuisance, the animals tend to be the ones blamed. As climate change worsens and wildfires become more common, so too will human-animal conflict.
Physical Injuries: Burns and Breathing Difficulties
Burns and breathing issues from smoke are two of the most common health impacts for wild animals fleeing fires.
While some animals manage to escape with only mild burns to their fur or feathers, others are not so lucky, enduring deep burns over large portions of their bodies. The most common areas for animals to be burned are on their legs and heads.
Those with less severe injuries who are rescued might be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. But many animals have severe scar tissue, or are blinded or otherwise unable to make a full enough recovery to survive on their own. In such cases, they will never know freedom again.
Animals don’t just experience burns on their bodies; smoke inhalation can also lead to painful burning of their windpipes. Inhaling smoke from a wildfire can also lead to lifelong breathing problems and, in many cases, death from the carbon monoxide in the air.
Even if an animal survives a wildfire, both they and their offspring will feel the effects of the burn for generations to come. For example, without trees, average air and soil temperatures increase, creating dangerous conditions for thermo-sensitive offspring.
Contamination of Water Bodies
Unsurprisingly, wildfires have profound impacts on sources of water. In places that have experienced fires, scientists documented levels of contamination up to 100-times higher than before. Various nutrients and metals are among the pollutants that increase exponentially following a fire. It’s not just the water quality that is affected — the actual flow of rivers and streams tends to increase following a fire as well.
How Farm Animals Are Affected by Wildfires
It’s not just wild animals who are devastated by fires. In the wake of Australia’s fires, cattle were slaughtered by farmers for being “unusable” due to their teats being melted permanently closed and severe hoof injuries. Others were simply abandoned in the rush to escape the fires. In the aftermath, farmers were unable to get back to their herds to feed them or provide the care they needed.
Animals, and especially farm animals, are frequently left to fend for themselves in the face of an impending wildfire. Often this is due to a lack of training, or due simply to their being no plan in place to get them out.
During the 2021 Caldor fires in California, more than 600 animals were rescued from the flames. Thankfully, there were dedicated rescue teams made up largely of volunteers who helped get them to safety.
Like wild animals, livestock suffer immensely in the path of fires. A primary difference is that livestock are often contained, with less freedom to escape.
Even when they are evacuated, oftentimes they still experience dips in production from stress, or have other injuries that place them on tenuous grounds. The reality is that once they are no longer making a profit, farm animals are likely to be slaughtered.
What Happens to Wildlife After Wildfires
Wild animals struggle immensely following a wildfire. Though there is cause for hope when it comes to animals surviving the fire itself, they are faced with a completely changed ecosystem when the smoke clears. It’s then that many animals meet their demise.
The trees they once called home have been destroyed; even the rivers they once drank from have changed. Because of the considerable impact of a fire on the ecosystem, there are a considerable number of animals who die after the fact from starvation, dehydration, lack of shelter or simply being unable to find a safe place to call home.
Annual Animal Mortality Rates from Wildfires
Though it’s hard to know how many animals die each year from wildfires, even one major event, such as those in Australia or Pantanal, can devastate populations of animals for years to come.
In 2020, fires swept through 11 million acres of the Pantanal wetland. Based upon walkthroughs performed after the fact, researchers believe in excess of 17 million animals died, a number they say is conservative.
That same year, more than 28 million acres in Australia burned, killing an estimated 3 billion wild animals. The images of the aftermath were gruesome, featuring koalas, kangaroos and other native species with obvious burn injuries, and other animals standing amongst the charred remains of once-lush habitat.
Strategies to Minimize Wildfire Impact on Wildlife
Employing mitigation strategies to prevent wildfires is one of the best ways that we can reduce the impact on animals. While some strategies are the responsibility of specific government offices or non-governmental organizations, there are also steps that individuals can take to make sure they’re not starting the next blaze.
Perhaps one of the most famous fire prevention programs in the United States is Smokey Bear. As a character, Smokey has been educating the masses about wildfire prevention since 1944.
Among his suggestions are tips about campfire safety, burning debris in your backyard and preparing your home in case of a wildfire. In his campfire safety guide, Smokey advises people to be careful where they build fires, and to avoid flammable liquids.
But Smokey is more than just the poster child of fire responsibility; the real bear was once a burned cub rescued from the trees after a wildfire. After having his wounds treated, Smokey eventually made his way to the National Zoo, where he lived until he died in 1976.
Monitoring and Control of Invasive Species
Invasive species can make what might have been an easily controlled fire into a behemoth. Part of the reason the recent fires in Hawai’i turned so deadly so quickly was due to the presence of invasive grasses.
Initially introduced to feed livestock, the grasses burned much faster than native flora, allowing the fire to destroy habitat that normally would have survived due to its high-water content.
Having healthy ecosystems can keep fires from turning into megafires. One method that has been used by Indigenous communities for centuries to help maintain healthy forests and keep them safe is controlled burns, which help by getting rid of some of the underbrush that provide fuel to fires.
Between 4,000 and 5,000 controlled fires are performed annually by the U.S. Forest Service. These fires are carefully monitored by experts to ensure that all flames are extinguished.
What Can You Do to Protect Wildlife from Wildfires
Some of the best wildfire prevention tactics seem like common sense, but are often ignored. For example, making sure you know how to use grills, firepits and other outdoor hazards is key. When you’re done with a fire, it’s important to make sure it’s all the way out before leaving the area or going to bed. Before you even start a fire, check locally to ensure that fires are allowed, and that the area isn’t experiencing high-risk conditions like drought.
The Bottom Line
Wildfires can happen suddenly with little to no warning, leaving animals and people without time to prepare and get to safety. It’s not just the fire itself that can prove deadly, but also the conditions afterward that force animals to find new homes or risk starvation.
Though the best thing to do to prevent wildfires and the destruction they bring is to take steps to combat climate change, there are ways to minimize the number of fires happening — and to prevent the ones that do happen from getting out of control.
Grace is an avid writer and advocate with a passion for exploring animal rights from a social justice lens. She brings almost a decade of varied experience within the animal rights movement to her work as staff writer at Sentient Media.