Graphic by Mavis Stone, Article by Skylar Gering
2020 has been a bit of a disaster, and so of course it has had its fair share of natural disasters along with everything else. We rang in the new year with massive wildfires in Australia, the effects of which are still being felt today, and recently experienced some of the West Coast’s most severe fires in recorded history. Separated by the span of an ocean and a year, both sets of fires had devastating ecological consequences. While fires are a natural occurrence in dry ecosystems, climate change and various anthropogenic factors are contributing to more extreme fire seasons globally, with fires often raging out of control and governments ill-prepared to handle the destruction that follows.
2020 has been California’s most extreme fire season on record, with 3.2 million acres burned by mid-October, and on September 9th, the August Complex Fire was named California’s largest fire ever recorded. The scary reality is that at that time, the official fire season was just beginning, with many more fires expected before the end of the year. 2020’s huge fires were not isolated incidents. Rather they follow an annual trend of increasingly large and destructive fires. In fact, eight of California’s largest recorded wildfires have occurred within the past decade.
When fires devastate communities, we often hear about how they affect human lives, but rarely hear about their effect on wildlife. To begin this conversation, it is important to remember that California does have a natural wildfire season, and many species actually depend on the natural burning of their ecosystems in order to thrive. For example, certain species of plant seeds only germinate after a blaze, and some species of animals, such as the black-backed woodpecker, require burnt land to nest and find food.
However, over time, fire seasons have become longer, expanding from five to seven months since the 1970s, and blazes are now stronger due to mismanaged fire prevention and climate change, leaving even fire-adapted animals in danger. While animals can and do die in forest fires, death from the flames will not usually push a species to the brink of extinction. Rather, the widespread destruction of habitat and resources causes a major shift in a habitat’s ecology, preventing species recovery.
The New York Times cites that in Oregon, this year’s fires have destroyed most of the protected habitat of several endangered animals. Recent blazes killed half of the already miniscule population of pygmy rabbits — leaving only 50 remaining — and much of the sagebrush that they depend on for food and protection. It is a similar story with the endangered sharp-tailed grouse, which is now left without the needed habitat to protect its young. While these populations might have been able to recover if they only had to account for population loss, destroyed habitat will take years to recover and creates a negative feedback loop where endangered populations are unable to regrow, pushing them ever closer to extinction. Additionally, more problems could be coming in the near future. Officials are concerned that ash and debris from fires will soon pollute streams and other water sources during future rainfall events. This influx of toxins has the potential to be very harmful to aquatic life and it is still too early to know what the long-term effects on wildlife in general will be.
For a dash of good news, some species might have avoided the worst of it this year with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife services noting that the nesting season for most birds was over before the most severe fires began and many young birds were old enough to fly away and evade the flames. In particular, conservationists are thankful that endangered California Condors were mostly able to avoid the fires.
However, looking further ahead to future fire seasons, it is clear that we must do something about climate change to protect the habitats of vulnerable wildlife. As climate change continues to produce increasingly hot and dry weather, the likelihood of extreme fires like those that occurred this year increases. When the air is hot and dry, it leads to increased evaporation from both living and dead plants. Once a material runs out of water to evaporate, it begins absorbing heat, furthering the drying process and making plants into increasingly flammable tinder. The past decade of drought and increasing temperatures in California have left huge swaths of this new tinder ready to burn. Additionally, due to the extreme strength of these climate-change fueled fires, forests are being so thoroughly destroyed that they are not regenerating as they would have in the past. This leads to yet another negative feedback loop as flammable and quick-growing grasses taking the place of forests, creating even more tinder for future fires.
Things are going to get worse, and we will need major changes if we want them to get better again. In order to protect ecosystems, we need to take a closer look at the cause of wildfires and begin to take steps to address climate change. Luckily, California Governor Gavin Newson has acknowledged the role of climate change in this year’s fires and says that he is dedicated to political change. Additionally, with president-elect Joe Biden slated to come into office, it is likely that the U.S. will take up stringent climate change regulations. As citizens who have recently witnessed the devastation that climate change can cause, it is important for us to put our collective will towards fighting for change and holding governments and companies accountable for their role in global climate change.