For some, recovery can take decades
Evacuation levels are dropping at the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek fires, and most evacuated residents are now able to go home and get back to their normal lives.
However, animals in the affected areas may not have a home to go back to.
So far this fire season, the most visible evidence of wildfire’s danger to animals is a tiny bear cub rescued by a firefighter on the Cedar Creek Fire around July 26.
The cub, since identified as a female, was found with second-degree burns on her snout and face and burns on her paw pads.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) responded after the cub was found, reportedly on the northwest portion of the fire near Mazama. Since then, she has been transferred to the PAWS wildlife rehabilitation center in Lynnwood.
PAWS plans to hold a detailed press conference later this month, but has released that the cub is roughly 7 months old and weighs just 14 pounds.
“PAWS veterinary staff treated her by removing affected tissue, applying ointment to promote healing, placing bandages to protect her wounds, and providing pain management,” PAWS announced on social media Thursday (Aug. 5). “She’ll need frequent vet checks and bandage changes as her wounds heal and will be in PAWS’ care until she is healed and ready for release next spring.”
Though instances of animals injured by wildfire and their rescue are certain to be well-publicized and tug at readers’ heartstrings, direct injury from wildfire is actually much less common than damage done to animal populations over time from loss of habitat, said John Rohrer, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service’s Methow Valley Ranger District.
“In general, wildfire is really variable, and wildlife is really variable,” Rohrer said. “There’s going to be winners and losers.”
During a fire, animals in any given area are either going to be injured or killed or are going to have to move. Rohrer said an animal getting killed by a fire itself — direct mortality — is not very common in a fire like Cedar Creek or Cub Creek. Staci Lehman, communications manager for eastern Washington for the WDFW, said she was only aware of one other animal — an elk calf — that died as a result of the fire.
“There’s always exceptions,” Rohrer said. “The Carlton Complex Fire in 2014 was an exception — we had evidence that it killed deer, cougar, bears, it just caught them. Most of the time that doesn’t happen.”
Rohrer noted the bear cub from Cedar Creek is the only rescued injured wild animal that he’s heard of from either fire.
“That little bear cub probably either couldn’t keep up with his mom or he climbed a tree at the wrong time,” he said.
After animals have moved out of an area during a fire event, some may be able to return fairly quickly, while others will have to wait decades for the land to be habitable again in the event of a high- or moderate-severity fire.
First, Rohrer said, insects that are attracted to burned areas move in, and in turn, attract predators.
“There’s two species of woodpeckers here — the black back woodpecker and the northern three-toed woodpecker, and they’ll move into fire areas almost immediately,” he said. “Basically they’re following a flush of insects.”
As the seasons change, grasses and flowering plants come back, providing nutritious food for vegetarian species.
“Having brand new grass and forbs is good for vegetarians because it’s the new stuff that has the most protein in it,” Rohrer said, speaking specifically about deer. “They don’t get a lot of protein, especially, out of dry grass or dead grass or shrubs, stemmy shrubs, but brand new growth is where there’s some protein so they can really grow and put on fat.”
Bear and ground nesting birds also forage on wildflowers, grasses and other plants that recover in the first year or two after a fire.
Next come shrubs, and in a few more years they’ll be mature enough to produce berries, bringing in more animals including omnivores like bears and raccoons, some bird species and even foxes and martens.
Willow and aspen come back strong in more riparian areas and grow quickly.
“Moose really like that,” Rohrer said. “One species in particular that I think we have more of now than we did 20 years ago is moose, because of all the large wildfires that we’ve had in the past 20 years and all the willow that’s out there. … Thirty years ago it was almost unheard of to have someone say they saw a moose. They’re not common but they’re much more abundant than they used to be.”
Once lodgepole pine trees establish and grow past 6 feet or so — maybe 20 years after a serious fire — snowshoe hare tend to become more abundant. And like the insects attracted to the burned land bring in woodpeckers, the hare bring in another kind of predator — the Canada lynx.
The area burned by the Tripod Fire in 2006 is just getting to the point where it will provide good habitat for snowshoe hare, Rohrer said.
“In another five or six years there’ll be a lot of snowshoe hares in the tripod area and lynx will respond to that,” he said. “So it’s kind of negative for lynx to see areas of Tripod reburning right now.”
Starting from scratch
A number of areas in the Cub Creek and Cedar Creek fires are burning in the scars of past wildfires, consuming dead trees along with new grass, wildflowers and shrubs so many of the Methow’s species rely on.
While Rohrer is hopeful that more habitat will open up for the Canada lynx — federally listed as an endangered species — repeat wildfires that knock land back to early stages of renewal put its recovery at risk.
“In the last 20 years probably half … of the lynx habitat up here has burned, so it’s not in a suitable condition for lynx or snowshoe hares right now,” Rohrer said. “So if that keeps on happening we’re going to get to the point where we don’t have enough habitat to have lynx here.”
Other animals struggle with repeat wildfires as well.
Between the Carlton and Okanogan complex fires, about 50% of deer species’ winter ranges were burned.
“Our deer herds have still not recovered totally from that, and bitterbrush just doesn’t come back on the winter ranges after being burned, at least not in abundance,” Rohrer said.
The final stage in habitat recovery in the forests of the Methow Valley is to have a dense conifer forest with thick underbrush — ideal habitat for species like northern spotted owls or goshawks, squirrels and pine martens.
But repeat fires set back their recovery by decades.
“They need that dense conifer cover, conifer canopy for their nesting and for their foraging,” he said. “So when we have a high intensity fire … it’ll be 80 or 90 years before the habitat is back in a suitable condition for them.”
WDFW can reintroduce threatened species, but not in response to a specific fire.
“We try to let nature take its course to a certain degree,” Lehman said.
When fires burn habitat, people may see deer, bears and other wild animals foraging closer to populated areas, but it does more harm than good to put out food, Rohrer and Lehman said.
“It never turns out well,” Rohrer said. “It makes them more dependent or less wary of humans and settlements.”
Feeding wild animals creates bad habits that can be passed down from mothers to their babies. Putting out food for deer and other prey animals can also attract predators that can become aggressive as well, Lehman said.
“People are so good-hearted that they want to help out,” she said. They feed them, that keeps the animals there, whereas if they don’t feed them, they’re going to move on and find better habitat.”
Changing the landscape
When Rohrer first started working for the Forest Service in the Methow Valley in 1991, that dense conifer forest habitat represented much of the district’s land. It was good for the species that need that kind of habitat, but lacked diversity, he said.
“Now it’s not that way anymore,” he said. “It’s not from anything we did, it’s just from wildfire.”
On the one hand, more diversity of habitat is good, he said, but it’s happening too fast.
Thirty years ago, the Forest Service was seeing fires of a few thousand acres, which at the time seemed huge. Then in the past 15 years, fires have regularly burned tens or hundreds of thousands of acres. The Tripod Fire, some of which is being burned again this year, burned 175,000 acres.
“There’s all these early successional areas of wildfire that are recovering from wildfire so now instead of … this big monotonous million acres of dense conifer forest, it’s all chopped up now,” he said. “Which is in some ways better for some species, but 175,000 acres is a big piece of land to change all at once.”