Throughout 2020, the United States has been experiencing wildfires that have enveloped multiple regions across the West Coast, including California, Oregon, and Washington. Aided by climate change and poor forest management, these fires have damaged up to 3 million hectares of land, killed at least 35 people, and damaged more than 7500 structures. According to biologists, these wildfires endanger various wildlife species and habitats, driving multiple ecosystems towards extinction. As of early October, the Glass Fire and the Zogg fire in Northern California continue to run rampant, while firefighters attempt containment.
“We are in unchartered territory here, and we just don’t know how resilient species and ecosystems will be to wildfires of the magnitude, frequency, and intensity that we are currently experiencing in the U.S. West,” states S. Mažeika Patricio Sullivan, an ecologist at the Ohio State University, Columbus.
According to biologists, half of Washington’s endangered pygmy rabbit population has been wiped out by fires that burned down their habitat in sagebrush flats. These pygmies are North America’s smallest rabbit specie, and reportedly only 50 remain. Bird populations in the area have also been drastically affected, with 30% to 70% of Washington’s sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse killed by the fires.
The habitat of the white-headed woodpecker, found in Pacific Northwest and California, is also under threat by the fires, according to Vicki Saab, a wildlife biologist of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. Similarly, the deaths of thousands of birds in New Mexico are suspected to be caused by fire smoke enveloping the region.
On Wednesday, an orphaned mountain lion was recovered from the Zogg fire and is currently under burn treatment at the Oakland Zoo, California.
In addition to birds and animals, plant populations, such as the Coulter pine, are also facing danger. “California especially has a lot of endemic plant species that could be very much impacted,” claims Camille Stevens-Rumann, a fire ecologist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. The recovery of burned forests is also an issue of concern, with climate change alongside warmer and drier post-fire conditions likely to hamper tree growth. Additionally, the threat of future fires continues to linger. According to Monica Turner, a fire ecologist at University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison, “just a little more drought can lead to much bigger fires.”
As many ecosystems within North America that have suffered frequent fires are failing to regenerate, fears continue to arise about the survival of animal and plant species. The damage to various species caused by the wildfires is ongoing, and not enough information is yet available to estimate the losses.
According to Edward Smith, a fire manager for the Nature Conservancy, predicting the aftermath of such fire is “very complex” and depends on a wide range of factors, such as future climate. “Some habitats will bounce right back, others will struggle for years to recover what was lost, and still others will completely change to a new type of habitat,” he says.