Up and down the state of California, 2020 has been a difficult year to say the least. Not only has the state had to deal with the Coronavirus pandemic – along with the rest of the world – it’s seen a record-setting fire season that’s only just begun. According to Cal Fire, the state has already seen more than 8,600 fire events that have burned 4.2 million acres of land – or roughly 4% of the states land.
Things are so precarious in California that five of the state’s 10 largest fires in modern history are all burning at once. Together, this year’s wildfires have already destroyed 4,200 buildings, forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, and killed at least 34 people.
Wrapped up in the disaster from the beginning, along with the human residents and victims, have been the animal residents—the pets, working animals, livestock, and wildlife that have also become victims, evacuees, rescuers, and comforters. Families who fled the infernos on a moment’s notice threw their pets into their cars and trucks, and ranchers rushed to get their animals to safety. Many wild animals were not lucky enough to escape. Animal shelters stepped in to house and care for rescued and injured pets, and working animals were brought in to help with search, rescue, and recovery, and to serve as comfort animals for the victims.
One victim – a Black bear found with serious injuries – is getting a second chance after a novel treatment for his severe burns.
Officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife found the 370-pound bear amid the rubble of the North Complex fire – which has burned more than 318,000 acres since igniting in mid-August. All four of his paws had been burned and he was unable to walk on his own.
After being rescued, he was transported to the Wildlife Investigations Laboratory in Rancho Cordova, where he was evaluated: his lungs were damaged from smoke inhalation, his paws were badly burned and he had a minor eye injury. According to Deanna Clifford, a veterinarian who cared for the bear, paw pad injuries are common for animals in wildfires.
“That’s the challenge,” she told the LA Times. “If they can’t walk, they can’t find water and they can’t find prey. … They become stuck.”
Thankfully, this lucky bear received several treatments, including the innovative use of tilapia skins as natural bandages for its paw pads. Afterward, he was kept in a quiet enclosure for several days and monitored around-the-clock with a remote camera. The bear’s appetite remained healthy throughout recovery, and he even put on weight, but officials were eager to take him home.
Unfortunately, stories like this are becoming more common as California continues to burn.
The rescued bear was the first of several animal patients this year. The Wildfire Disaster Network is now treating a female mountain lion from the Bobcat fire in Los Angles County that arrived on Sept. 21, and a 520-pound bear from the Zogg fire in Shasta County that arrived Sept. 30.
“It’s likely that we will receive more wildlife with burns,” Clifford told the LA Times. “We are only halfway through the regular fire season.”
The mammals under treatment at the Wildfire Disaster Network are among an uncounted tally of wild animals likely injured, killed and displaced by catastrophic blazes that have swept California and other western states since mid-August in a wildfire season of unprecedented dimensions.
The climate crisis is turning California into a firestorm of epic proportions.
Experts say the intensity and prevalence of major conflagrations has steadily grown in recent years, stoked by bouts of blistering heat, extreme dry spells, fierce winds and lightning storms. Scientists have pointed to the region’s incendiary weather, along with supercharged fuel beds overgrown with tinder-dry grass and scrub, as consequences of climate change.
And as these animal victims highlight, it’s not just our human communities that are facing the consequences.
In any given year, California is supposed to burn. The state has a long documented history of naturally-occurring forest fires going back millennia. The state’s fire season is a natural part of its environment. However, as climate change takes its toll, these fires are growing bigger and stronger imperiling all of those – including humans and animals – in their way.
Experts agree that a 21st Century forest management plan is needed to address the crisis.
Temperatures in California have steadily risen by about three degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution, which is even faster than temperatures in the rest of the U.S. While it may sound small, it means snows in Northern California are melting sooner, leaving trees without moisture for longer periods of the year, and the air is drying out faster, which sucks more moisture out of plants and trees. Plants and trees devoid of moisture will die, becoming easy tinder for wildfires.
More than 150 million trees have died in California since 2010. These dead trees litter the state’s forest creating an awaiting crisis. That means fires, once they start, will typically spread further and more quickly. So one of the clearest conclusions, as experts have been saying for years, is that California must begin to work with fires, not just fight them. That means reversing a century of US fire suppression policies and relying far more on deliberate, prescribed burns to clear out the vegetation that builds up into giant piles of fuel.
Such practices “don’t prevent wildfires,” says Crystal Kolden, an assistant professor at the University of California, Merced focused on fire and land management. “But it breaks up the landscape, so that when wildfires do occur, they’re much less severe, they’re much smaller, and when they occur around communities, they’re much easier to control, she told the Sacramento Bee.
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