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How Wildfires Affect L.A.'s Different Animal Populations

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Firefighters spray water on a burned rabbit running out from the flames of the La Tuna Fire on September 2. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
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The fire that tore through more than 7,000 acres in the Verdugo Mountains this weekend was devastating. Even from afar, motorists on the 5 Freeway could see the angry hues of the fire that smoldered into the night—a frightful sight that drew the predictable comparisons to Mordor. More than 700 residents were evacuated, and for the wildlife in the area, the situation was one of immediate danger.

KPCC pondered the consequences for those animals on Friday. How quickly does an animal population bounce back after a wildfire has died out? Is it easier for some than others to thrive after their homes have been gutted by a blaze?

To predict the fate of the wildlife affected by the LaTuna fire, KPCC pointed to an ongoing study by the National Parks Service that looks at the effects of the 2013 Springs Fire that burned through the western Santa Monica Mountains. In late summer of 2013, NPS researchers put 30 motion-detecting cameras in the burn area, setting up cameras in spots that were completely ravaged by the fire, spots that still had patches of vegetation, and a section that was untouched. The goal was to see what happened to the wildlife population in the aftermath of a massive wildfire that had scorched through 24,000 acres.

What they found (in their preliminary analysis) was that some animals were quicker than others to return to a burn area. “They found coyotes and gray foxes using the burned areas from the start,” the NPS said in a report published in June. “Coyotes were the only species captured on camera more often in burned than in unburned areas. The opposite was true for the foxes. Bobcats were rarely seen in the burned areas, but turned up in habitat patches just as often as in unburned areas.” The report added that small animals like rabbits seemed to stay away from the burn areas, while the population of California mule deer increased over time.

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As for why the animals responded differently, it’s because the fires brought different consequences. Justin Brown, an ecologist with the NPS that’s currently heading the fire study, told LAist that small animals are often hit especially hard in a wildfire. “Especially for smaller animals, any fire is an issue for them since they’re not very mobile. So lizards, snakes, and some of those, they can’t run from a fire. Their only hope is to find shelter somehow,” said Brown. As such, smaller animals are often either killed in the fire, or starve to death after the local vegetation has been depleted. “You lose a lot of the vegetation and that takes out a major food source. Like rabbits—they’re much more into the green vegetation. So if there’s no vegetation, they can’t return to the area.”

As noted by KPCC, larger animals like bobcats felt the effects too. The disappearance of rabbits meant that the bobcats lost a natural prey. They also prefer dense, woody undergrowth, which the fire had eliminated.

That one animal that seemed to shrug it off? Coyotes, of course, who have been documented as being surprisingly adaptive and resilient in the L.A. area. “I think the biggest factor is that they have such a broad depth of diet, so they can take advantage of a huge amount of different things, from insects, to plants, to animals,” Brown told LAist. “They also just do well in open habitats, and the burn obviously creates this much more open habitat. When it’s super thick, there’s not a lot of area for them to move around in.”

Brown says the NPS will be paring down the fire study, and hopes to wrap up a major portion of the research this fall. He expects to present the findings in a scientific paper in six to nine months. As for what, exactly, the study wants to achieve with its data, Brown says it may inform future efforts in fire firefighting and wildlife preservation. “There’s different steps that can be taken. We may take steps to help some areas be restored faster. Maybe, during a fire, there are things we can encourage—like preserving certain spots, fighting to save certain patches in the fire zone,” Brown told LAist.

“[The study] could show that just any tiny little patch could be valuable. But it could also show that we need a certain size to build or preserve certain species,” Brown added.

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As for the LaTuna fire, it had threatened (and continues to threaten) a big swath of animals. “They have the general diversity that the other ranges out there have,” Brown said of the wildlife in the region, noting that it houses coyotes, bobcats, and foxes, among many other animals.

What complicated matters is that region is fairly cloistered, blocked off by a set of freeways including the 210 and the 5. This could have made it harder for animals to venture into safer territories. “There’s also development. There aren’t a lot of spots that immediately connect to other habitats. Just across the freeway there’s a lot of development in those paths,” said Brown.