The fast-moving fires that swept through Western United States have wiped out critical populations of endangered species and incinerated native habitats that may take years to recover, if they recover at all.
Fire is a critical part of ecosystems in the West, and many plants and animals depend on it to thrive, but the heat and intensity of the wildfires now ravaging California, Oregon, Washington and other Western states are so destructive that wildlife in some areas may struggle to recover.
“Some of these places we set aside may be fundamentally impacted by climate change and may not be able to come back,” said Amy Windrope, deputy director of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. “That’s just a reality.”
With millions of acres across the west blackened by fire, the effect on humans has been clear: Lives lost, tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes, possessions and livelihoods destroyed, and state and federal fire fighting resources have been stretched beyond the limit.
Residents are even beginning to question whether the changing fire danger will make their hometowns too dangerous to inhabit. Less obvious is the long-term effects to native species.
Wildlife officials all over the West are grappling with how to respond now that the existence of habitats set aside for threatened species appear to be imperiled by megafires made worse by climate change.
“It’s important to make the connection between what’s happening now and climate change,” said Davia Palmeri, policy coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We now have to think about climate change when managing wildlife.”
Fire that raced through the sagebrush steppe country of central Washington this month destroyed several state wildlife areas, leaving little more than bare ground. The flames killed about half of the state’s endangered population of pygmy rabbits, leaving only about 50 of the palm-sized rabbits in the wild there.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” Windrope said. “We have very little sage brush habitat left for them, and it will take decades for this land to recover.”
The fires also destroyed critical breeding grounds for endangered sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, and officials estimate the fast-moving flames may have wiped out 30 percent to 70 percent of the birds. The survivors are left without the critical brush cover they need to raise young.
The intensity of the fires this month has not been seen in generations, said Molly Linville, whose family has ranched in Douglas County, Washington, for nearly a century. Ranchers in the area were unable to get cattle out of the way, and many died. On the range they found deer and other wildlife staggering around, severely burned.
“One neighbor girl found a porcupine who had all his quills burned off. It took the longest time to even figure out what it was,” she said. “They took it in, and I think it’s going to be OK, but the land — it’s going to take years to come back.”
In Oregon, the fires have largely raged in western pine forests, prompting different concerns. Several endangered and threatened species, including the northern spotted owl and the weasel-like pine marten, depend on the mature mountain forests that bore the brunt of the fires.
“It’s too soon to tell the impact,” Palmeri said. “Birds can fly out of harm’s way, animals can seek refuge underground, but some wildlife may return to find the old-growth forests they rely on gone.”
The impact of hundreds of thousands of acres of barren slopes may spread well beyond the fires’ reach and remain once the flames are out. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is bracing for winter rains that could wash ash and silt into local streams and affect endangered salmon.
“We’re already thinking about how we can respond to that,” Palmeri said. “It’s important we do this restoration work now to try to minimize the impact.”
MILLIONS OF ACRES BURN IN CALIFORNIA AS WEATHER IMPROVES IN NORTHWEST
The prospect of scattered rain in the Pacific Northwest raised hopes for better firefighting conditions in Washington and Oregon on Wednesday, after weeks of oppressive heat, hazardous air and unpredictable fires that have grown with terrifying speed up and down the coast.
Although the storm system was not forecast to be significant, the possibility of rain clouds in coastal regions — instead of smoke plumes and falling ash — was a lifeline for residents after weeks of increasingly grim news. More than 30 people have died in wildfires in the past two months, hundreds of homes have been destroyed and thousands of people remain in evacuation shelters.
Inland and to the south, the forecast was less encouraging. Parts of Central Oregon were expecting gusts up to 35 mph in the afternoon that could contribute to a “significant spread” of new and existing fires, the National Weather Service in Medford, Oregon, said. Up to 29 fires were active in the state Wednesday, spread over more than 843,500 acres.
And in California, there was not even temporary relief in sight, with the state fire agency saying Tuesday, “With no significant precipitation in sight, California remains dry and ripe for wildfires.” State leaders, facing not just this wildfire season, spoke about the need to face an indefinite future of fires worsened by climate change.
“Firefighters themselves, with decades of experience, are telling me that they’ve never seen fires like this before because of the extreme aridity combined with wind,” Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state said at a news conference Tuesday.
As of early Wednesday, there were at least 25 major wildfires and fire complexes, the term given to multiple fires in a single geographic area, burning in California, Christine McMorrow, a Cal Fire information officer, said.
More than 2.8 million acres have either burned since Aug. 15 or are on fire now, she said.
Late Tuesday, emergency officials reported progress on some of the biggest fires around the region. The growth of the Beachie Creek fire, which has burned more than 190,000 acres east of Salem, Oregon, had slowed, and the fire was 20% contained as of Wednesday morning. The August Complex fire, which has burned almost 800,000 acres north of Sacramento, was 30 percent contained, and the 220,000-acre North Complex fire, to its east, was 18 percent contained.
Inslee said that Washington state was now in position to help its neighbors, if in a small way, by sharing some of its resources with Oregon.
“We’re confident right now that we have enough personnel and equipment to protect our communities,” he said. “It’s not a lot but it is a gesture that, again, we are all in this together.”
But he also warned residents of Western states that stepping outside exposed them to some of the worst air conditions in the world. The air, he said, was at “historically polluted levels” and “unhealthy at best and hazardous at worst, according to our state health experts.”
Physical hazards remain even in areas where the fires are no longer active, authorities also warned. In addition to damaged structures and trees at risk of collapse, hundreds of electrical poles have been burned, leaving live wires on roadways or at risk of falling on pedestrians. And countless trees and branches are now dangers to anyone nearby. In a dashboard video tweeted by the Oregon State Police, a trooper’s car can be seeing driving through the haze of a forested road when a huge tree suddenly collapses on the vehicle.