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The 2017 California wildfire season was one of the most destructive on record, with a total of 9,133 fires burning over 1.3 million acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
While many people were displaced from their homes, many animals were as well. Here at the California Wildlife Center, we may see a few patients every year that have been directly impacted by wildfires, and we also get many calls from the public asking what they should do to help animals that may have been affected by the fires.
First, it is important to understand that while wildfires may be worsening due to human impact and climate change, it is still a natural environmental process that all our native animals have evolved with. Birds will instinctively fly away from the flames and smoke, mammals will also flee, and some amphibians and invertebrates may burrow into the soil to hide. Of course, young animals may not be able to escape, many bird nests and eggs may be destroyed, and even the healthiest animal might not be able to outrun the faster-moving fires.
After a fire, displaced animals may need to spend more time searching for food, water and shelter, and some may find it difficult to adjust. Some animals, however, may benefit from fires; many firefighters have reported seeing predators like hawks hunt small animals as they are fleeing from the fire, taking advantage of the distraction and larger concentration of their prey in a single location.
So, what can you do to help animals whose homes may have been destroyed by fire? Unfortunately, not very much. Advice circulating the internet last year encouraged people to leave out buckets of water for displaced wildlife; however, this is very unlikely to help most animals.
The best thing may be to let these animals figure things out on their own; they’ve been doing it for generations, after all. Even if you see an animal who appears to be in imminent danger near flames, we do not recommend you attempt to rescue that animal, for a few reasons. The first is that you may be putting yourself in harm’s way! Second, all wildlife perceives humans as predators so, although you may be trying to rescue that animal, it will still perceive you as a threat, and you may accidentally chase that animal further into the flames.
If you do find an animal that is injured, by fire or otherwise, and you can easily catch it without putting yourself in danger, there are a few things you can do.
Please call us at the California Wildlife Center, or call another local wildlife rehabilitation center, for advice on how to capture and transport that particular species. If you can’t get the animal to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center immediately, please keep it secured in a box or pet carrier, in a dark quiet place, and do not offer it any food or water. Just about any wild animal can survive for 24 hours without food or water, and sometimes offering an inappropriate diet can cause more harm than not offering any food at all. Please keep contact with the animal to a minimum to reduce stress.
Here’s to wishing all of us, including our wildlife neighbors, get through this year’s fire season as safely as possible.
On Common Ground is a monthly column written by various California Wildlife Center employees. CWC, a nonprofit located in Calabasas, cares for injured wildlife in Malibu and beyond.