(Updated July 9, 2012)
Wildfires in Colorado have dominated our news for several weeks, understandably; the toll in property, environment, and lives has been mind-numbing. Not making as many headlines, but of great importance to those who care about them are the animals affected by the fires — the wildlife, the pets, the livestock.
One of the top considerations for most evacuees are their pets. We humans love our pets like family and saving them is very nearly as important as saving ourselves. Remember Hurricane Katrina, when people weren’t allowed to take their pets with them? In many cases, pets were the only “family” those people had and their loss was devastating.
Many homes in Colorado’s suburbs and foothills are in rural or semi-rural areas. Dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys, horses, cattle, alpacas, llamas, goats, and sheep are common, often in numbers that can’t be quickly evacuated. In some cases, larger animals left behind in the High Park Fire were rescued by volunteers with horse trailers who, risking their own lives, went back into the fire zone to get them. In other cases, when the animals could not be evacuated, volunteers went back in to feed and water them. Veterinary clinics, animal shelters, and the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Fort Collins took in hundreds of evacuated and rescued animals.
Individual stories filled local media. There was the donkey (“Ellie”) that kept several equine charges calm and safe. The cat (“License Plate” aka “LP”) that survived the fire on her own. The 17 wolves at a wolf sanctuary that survived the fire in underground concrete fire dens while much of their facility burned (all have now been evacuated to a wildlife sanctuary near Keenesburg, Colo.). Not to mention assorted fish, hermit crabs, a bearded dragon, several large exotic snakes, and an Amazon parrot.
Across the state, animal welfare and rescue groups, veterinary hospitals, animal shelters, and the humane society have opened their doors to injured and rescued animals, and to pets in need of temporary housing. Lost pets and owners are being reunited. Supplies and donations continue to pour in from the general public. In some cases, so much has been donated that storage space has become a problem and only financial contributions can be accepted.
Yahoo News reported last week that the American Humane Association’s Red Star™ Rescue team, including its Red Star™ Rescue vehicle, was on its way to Colorado Springs for an emergency deployment. The 82-foot-long “Rescue Rig” is fully equipped with a mobile operating theater, emergency rescue equipment, and accommodations for 12 volunteers.
In the forest, wildlife that can run, will. Burrowing animals will burrow, and birds will fly. Many of the larger animals had already moved to higher elevations, away from the fire zone, seeking cooler temperatures and their normal summer grazing. Inevitably some will perish, but all species will return when the forest and undergrowth begin to recover.
Larger mammals will ultimately benefit from the fire. The trees that grow back will be less dense, with more grass and other forage — a healthier habitat for deer, elk, bighorn sheep, moose and other big game. The vigorous young shrubs will produce more berries, acorns, and other goodies for bears. In the meantime, some bears are still foraging in the area. Always a concern around mountain homes, they will likely become an increasing problem, drawn by the smell of rotting food in evacuated structures.
The High Park Fire occurred at a particularly bad time for kestrels and other raptors, with many nestlings too young to fly and escape. Those raptors that did escape are now encroaching on other birds’ territories and all are suffering from a lack of prey in the ongoing drought. The Rocky Mountain Raptor Program has taken in more than two dozen starving birds, mostly American Kestrels.
Minimal recovery in the fire zone will take up to five years, during which denuded mountainsides, with no ground cover to slow run-off, will be subject to heavy erosion. Rain, when it comes, will wash ash, soot, and fire-retarding slurry (the red stuff the planes drop, which contains toxic fertilizer) into streams and rivers, killing massive numbers of fish and destroying their habitat. (The state’s Hayman Fire in 2002, for example, killed 70% of the fish in the South Platte River and after a decade of work by wildlife and water experts it is only now beginning to repopulate.) Mud and debris will clog streams and rivers and cause erratic and dangerous flooding.
In time, with no media covering the story and no insurance agents or contractors rushing in to settle claims and help the rebuilding effort, Nature will reassert herself and the fire zones will recover. The wildlife will return and the birds will sing again. Life will go on as before. If only we humans could forget …