In wildfire’s path: Animal homes, human homes

Lolo Creek Complex fire headed our way; InciWeb – click image

Kathleen Stachowski Other Nations

When wildfire comes calling, all priorities shift. Animal rights work slides into oblivion while concern for individual animals–in this case, our own companion animals–sets sirens to shrieking in my head. Can I sneak the two cat carriers out of the attic undetected? Will I be able to catch Larkspur, our frightened, half-feral girl, when I absolutely must? (The element of surprise is critical!) Is her thyroid medication packed? Will the kennel have room for our dog Winter?…and when will I make the 25 mile round trip? Arrrgh!!!

Two small, lightning-sparked fires detected on Sunday, August 18th merged and exploded into the Lolo Creek Complex fire on Monday. Evacuation wasn’t immediately ordered, but still, we had to be ready to go and spent a fairly frantic day deciding what absolutely couldn’t be lost, packing it up, and getting it out of Dodge (thanks, Ken & Niccole!). By Monday evening, evacuation in our neighborhood was voluntary; we decided to stay. To ensure Winter’s safety (and spare her the upheaval and anxiety), I made an early evening run to the kennel spurred on by the immense, menacing smoke column looming above our northern Bitterroot Valley home in the foothills.

Tuesday brought choking smoke and hurried consultations about what additional stuff to pack in which car. Suddenly, I remembered a critical item still in the attic. “Oh my god,” I gasped to my husband, “Walden’s ashes! Her ashes have to be mingled with mine!” We processed this idea for a moment–that ashes had to be saved from a fire–then burst into peals of tension-breaking laughter, even while understanding the significance of that one animal companion (in this case, a blue-eyed Aussie-cross) who comes along once in a lifetime.

That evening we got the word: It’s time to go. The fire had made another explosive run and was bearing down on our rural neighborhood. Nothing gets the lead out like hearing, “You might have two hours, you might have 20 minutes.” Larkspur was successfully nabbed mid-nap. Juniper proved to be the tougher customer, resisting the carrier with six or eight legs while making noises I last heard in “The Exorcist.” We loaded them in one car–the other being partly filled with bags and cans of premium dog and cat food–and made a run for it. But wait–we forgot Winter’s orthopedic bed! It wasn’t too late to dash back and grab it. Evacuation, it seemed, was largely about our animal companions. Even the dead ones!

We spent the Tuesday-to-Saturday evacuation with friends (thanks, April & Steve!) whose detached, one-room cabin allowed us to be with our kitties while all four of us–cats and humans–freaked out, each according to her or his own species.

Moose in crown fire burn; InciWeb – click image

In our circle of animal-loving friends and family, someone always gets to wondering and worrying about the wild animals in a fire’s path. This is when I harken to naturalist Henry Beston’s eloquent words about animals as the “other nations” so superior to us in ways we can’t fathom or refuse to acknowledge:

…We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. ~Full quote is here.

Common sense and respect for their abilities tell me that animals are savvier than we are–perceiving distant danger with those extensions of senses, heeding the voices that tell them when it’s time to fly, to flee, or to ride out the flames in underground burrows. A moose and wild turkeys who’d fled the Lolo Creek Complex were photographed a few days later returning to the still-smoldering landscape. “Don’t worry about the animals,” said Bill Leenhouts, a fire ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Most animals actually escape the fires.” His comments were made back in 2000, another memorable wildfire year when much of the West was ablaze. “There is some [animal death], there’s no doubt about it,” he continued. “Surprisingly, there’s not that much.”

…escape from a wildfire is easy for most animals, large and small. The most vulnerable animals are very young, old or injured animals. The percentage of large animals such as deer and bear that die from wildfires is so low that scientists have a difficult time measuring their numbers. Sometimes firefighters report finding dead mice or other rodents in a fire area. But finding large animals that apparently died from a wildfire is uncommon… What is clear to scientists is that many animal and plant species depend upon fire for their survival… ~M. McMillan/USFWS Outreach Specialist, 2011, NIFC

TNC – click image

Indeed, some animals owe much to wildfire. The American bison evolved with the prairie biome; fast-moving grassfires shaped both land and animal. Flames made the lumbering bison fleet of foot, able to outrun a fire at 30 miles per hour. Certainly this means that slower animals were overtaken and perished, but natural selection is nature’s plan.

So fire is not necessarily the enemy–unless you’re a human with a house full of stuff in its pathPlants and animals depend on fire to clear the forest floor of competing undergrowth, to maintain old growth, to replenish the soil with nutrients, to create new habitat, to stimulate biodiversity, to release the seeds of fire-dependent species and more. One wonders, though, given the effects of climate change–longer fire seasons and larger, more intense fires–will animals who must move on to new homes find enough available habitat?

In most cases, habitat modification poses a much greater threat to animals than the fire itself. In the period immediately following a fire, many animals are forced to move to other areas in order to find food and/or shelter. The length of time animals are forced to move out of a burned area depends heavily on the size and severity of the burn… ~Effects of Wildfire on Animals

After all, even my own home sits in a rural gulch that was, decades ago, available habitat. And even though we’ve made every attempt to maintain a native landscape and a presence as unobtrusive as possible, we’re surrounded by barking dogs, droning lawnmowers, ATVs, and other intrusions entirely heedless of human neighbors, let alone consideration for wildlife. The elk who used to look in our windows moved on years ago.

The Lolo Creek Complex fire was, for one critical day, the nation’s number one priority fire as it came barreling down the Lolo Creek canyon, consuming five homes on its way. The assembled team of hundreds–firefighters, National Guard, agency personnel–from around the country and Canada stopped the fire just short of our neighborhood, teaching us humans an unforgettable lesson in gratitude. Our household is back to normal. The cat carriers are stowed in the attic near the ashes of three beloved cats and one dog.

Out in the charred forest, wild animals pursue their lives as they have for millennia.

6 Responses

  1. Such an instructive essay, Kathleen…quite relieved that you and yours are safe and well. Bless you all and your natural habitat and wild and domestic friends forever. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and thoughts!

  2. I ditto murphysmission, Kathleen.

  3. An unrelated question for Blawg reader HAL 9000: Are there two of you commenting in the blogosphere? Or is it another HAL 9000 who reads and compliments the BFP blogger?

  4. BlessUsAll,

    I’m not sure I understand the question. But because “2001: A Space Odyssey” remains to this day a popular film, it’s entirely possible there is more than one person using “HAL 9000” as an online handle.

    Regarding wildfires, the increading frequency and intensity springs from several factors. Land-management agencies now recognize the value of wildfire and its place in nature. But for much of the 20th Century, they held to a “fight every fire, everywhere” mentality, which led to a massive buildup of fuels. Also coming into play are such things as drought and beetle kill in massive stands of forest.

    All that intensifies another long-running problem in the West, development sprawl. The desire to live “out in the country” is perfectly understandable, but it’s led to countless problems — the increasing need to spend money and put firefighters in potential danger by compelling them to protect rural homes being only one.

    As a multi-generational Western native who has witnessed a continual march of homes and subdivisions into what used to be open countryside in community after community, I have been and remain of the strong opinion that people should buy or build houses in town. The countryside should be left for agriculture, wildlife, recreation and, of course, for wildfire to do its thing.

  5. Yup, HAL 9000, there must be more than one person using that moniker, because if you were the one whose comments I saw on the BFP blog, you’d know what that acronym stands for. 🙂

    I agree with you about development sprawl. And I thank you for refraining from mentioning in your last sentence the one “countryside” activity to which the bloggers and most readers of Animal Blawg object!!!

  6. Hi – Your moment of tension breaking laughter regarding Walden’s ashes reminded me of when a series of 3 hurricanes ripped through our area within a six week period. We got the routine down as to what to do by securing any possible outdoor trajectories. One conversation went like this: “Honey, I’m throwing the patio furniture back in the pool again.” “Okay Dear!” — Of course out of context, that’s absurd! Years later we still joke about it and use it as a key example of how perceptions of “normal” reality can change on a dime.

    On a serious note – I’m so sorry you had to endure the mind-heart-and soul troubling event of fire. There’s nothing more frightening than hungry flames that are out of control. You must have been wrought with anguish at the dread of what could have happened. Glad things worked out okay for you and yours – And for the benefit of the wild creatures as well. May you never have a future need for cat carriers.

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