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Five Unexpected Ways That Wildfires Affect Wildlife, Ecosystems of Forests

Wildfires have scorched more than 9 million acres in the United States so far this year, destroying buildings and homes in their paths. However, wildfires affect forests in various lesser-known ways. The following is a list of five different ways that plants, animals and water are affected by wildfires.

1. Animal predators see wildfire areas as an opportunity for food.

Rodents seek shelter from the flames by burrowing into the ground, taking cover in logs or hiding under rocks. Once the fire cools, they emerge and have less places to hide, making them easy targets for predators.

"Raptors will hunt at the edge of fires, so as the rodents are scampering away from the flames, they kind of are flushed out," Dr. Timothy Ingalsbee, co-director of the Association for Fire Ecology said.

Ingalsbee added that hunting is not as active while the fire is still burning because most critters are escaping or seeking shelter. However, right after a fire has been extinguished or controlled that the area becomes a "happy hunting grounds" for predators.

2. Most animals do not wait till the flames start to seek shelter or escape the forest.

"Rodents will burrow down into their hole in the ground or some of them actually will burrow into big, down logs that even though they are dead and dry on the outside, they can be very moist on the inside," Ingalsbee said.

Large game typically scurry away from the fire while birds will fly away, Ingalsbee added.

Smoke, heat and/or noise associated with fires can be signals for animals to get out of harm's way, Ingalsbee said.

3. Young and small animals are particularly at risk in wildfires.

Often the strategies animals have in place to escape the flames do not work, especially for young and small animals. They may not be able to find shelter or run fast enough to escape the flames.

"Those few who do survive fires usually have prolific reproduction," Ingalsbee said.

4. Bodies of water such as streams and rivers that flow through a fire burned area can be altered.

Impacts from wildfires can be detrimental to aquatic species; however, there are some positive effects.

"Fires can make the streams warmer which is not good for fish," Ingalsbee said.

Changes to the water flow or volume of the water can also occur from wildfires.

"[Fires] can increase volume of water because more is running off the slope or through the soil instead of being drawn up by plants," Ingalsbee said.

As a result, debris will flow or landslides can occur and these may alter the course of a stream.

Following wildfires, harmful sediment can also enter into streams along with any runoff.

However, some of the sediment that infiltrates the water is filled with nutrients for insects, which in turn becomes great food for fish and plants.

5. There are many plant species that need fires to occur as it is part of their life history.

Fire-dependent species such as the giant sequoia and lodgepole and jack pine rely of fires in order to reproduce.

"[A giant sequoia] has the tiniest little seed that will only take root and grow in the ash layer of a fresh fire. It needs the other plants to be cleared out of its way for it to grow," Ingalsbee said.

The ash contains many rich nutrients and when mixed with water can help a new generation of giant sequoia to grow, Ingalsbee added.

"We are missing several generations of giant sequoias because we have put out fires for so many decades. Instead, all these fir trees have grown up right underneath the giant sequoias, and in some cases, put the giant sequoias at risk," Ingalsbee said.

Lodgepole and jack pine use the heat from the flames to melt away the wax that holds their cones closed. This will open up the cones and the seeds will fall into the fresh ash, where they are able to take root without much competition, according to Stephen J. Pyne, professor in the Biology and Society Program at Arizona State University and author of the "Cycle of Fire," book series.

"The biodiversity of even the most severely burned areas are hot spots of all these diverse species of not just plants, but animals that flock to burned forests," Ingalsbee said. "In some case, there's more diversity there [than] before the fire."