How wildfires can harm wildlife

Here is another guest post from Dan Coconate, with some notes from me. This one deals with a topic that’s becoming increasingly important: the impacts of wildfires on wildlife.


Wildfires have been increasing in severity and duration in many parts of the world. These fires can devastate human communities, making their impacts on wildlife easy to overlook. Below are some of the negative impacts wildfires can have on wildlife.

Wildfires are awesome forces of nature. They’ve occurred for thousands of years, and when they occur naturally they can be beneficial in the long term. However, catastrophic wildfires that leave massive amounts of damage in their wake have become more common in recent years. These fires can displace human communities, cause vast amounts of property damage, and even kill people.

While we shouldn’t trivialize the impacts of wildfires on people, it’s also important to consider how they affect wildlife. This could help us to better conserve species that live in fire country.

Below are some of the ways that uncontrolled wildfires can harm wildlife.

A giant smoke plume from a wildfire.
The Cal-Wood Fire rapidly approaching my house on October 17, 2020.

Negative Impacts of Wildfires on Wildlife

Fire and Debris

It’s no secret that wildfires are incredibly dangerous, and one of the most obvious ways they can devastate wildlife is through the fire itself and the debris it leaves behind.

Some animals cannot escape the flames, and if left to grow for too long, these fires can get out of control: they can even exceed 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s nearly hot enough to melt steel)! These fires are so hot that wildland firefighters need three different layers of firefighter turnout gear to stay safe when combatting them, which animals don’t have.

In addition to the fire, these flames can bring down branches and trees, and that debris does a lot to hurt the wildlife in affected areas. Some debris can block creatures in, while other debris can fall and hit animals, making it more likely that they will succumb to the flames.

Destruction of Habitat

Unfortunately, the fire itself isn’t the only thing that can harm wildlife. Large fires can also destroy habitats, forcing animals to flee and create homes elsewhere.

A burned forest
The aftermath of the Cal-Wood Fire, as seen on October 31, 2020.

Depending on the scale of the fire, it’s sometimes possible for animals to move and start anew, but in other situations, the fire runs rampant and destroys all viable habitats in the area. In these cases, animals may need to travel hundreds of miles to find someplace resembling their former habitat; and, unfortunately, not every animal can make that journey.

Another, crucial consideration is that many wildlife habitats are already declining, or becoming increasingly fragmented, around the globe. Wildfires and habitat fragmentation can interact with each other in ways that multiply the risks to some types of animals (Driscoll et al., 2021).

Elimination of Food and Water

Sometimes, wildlife habitat isn’t completely destroyed, or there’s an area nearby where animals can relocate. But in addition to shelter, animals need food and water to survive. Sadly, wildfires and the ash and smoke they create can destroy or contaminate food and water sources.

Reducing the Negative Impacts of Wildfires

Wildfires devastate wildlife, but they don’t have to be quite so destructive.

Many catastrophic wildfires are caused by human action. As such, the most important thing you can do is to follow all of the fire restrictions in your area. If officials tell you that it’s too dry to shoot off fireworks, or to light campfires, believe them and comply! It might not feel “proper” to go camping without an open fire, but it can literally save the lives of humans and animals.

Safety signs at Yellowstone National Park.
When you see signs like this, pay attention and follow all relevant guidelines! These rules are in place for good reasons. Wildlife and Fire Danger Signs at Northeast Entrance by Yellowstone National Park. Public domain.

There are other strategies to reduce the severity of wildfires. Government workers and private landowners can work to thin forests in vulnerable areas, thereby providing less fuel for wildfires.

Controlled burns follow a similar principle. This land management strategy – which has been practiced by indigenous peoples for thousands of years – involves creating small, contained fires that burn up some of the available fuel in strategic locations. This means that if wildfires move through those areas, they’ll cause less damage.

Somewhat paradoxically, allowing some wildfires to burn can also reduce the negative impacts of fires on wildlife. Suppressing all wildfires in fire-adapted landscapes (ecosystems that have evolved alongside wildfires) leads to a buildup of fuels, so that when a fire does break out – which it will eventually – it becomes catastrophic.

Of course, the decision to suppress a wildfire or allow it to burn will have to consider the risk to human communities.

Closing Thoughts

While many natural systems need some wildfires in order to thrive, we should all do our best to prevent the huge fires that can devastate wildlife. There are several ways to do this, but the most crucial thing is to learn and follow all of the fire safety guidelines where we live and recreate.

6 Thoughts

  1. I’ve never considered the impact of wildfires on wildlife directly so this was an enlightening read. We’ve been seeing an increase in Jamaican wildfires too… up to this week I was able to watch one being outted on the hill in the distance from my bedroom window. Scary stuff. We’re experiencing a nasty drought.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for reading, Elle!

      How wildfires impact wildlife can vary A LOT depending on the size of the fire, the wildlife species in question, how fragmented the habitat is, and a bunch of other factors. But the mega-fires that we’ve been seeing in the U.S. are definitely cause for concern.

      I didn’t know that you were seeing more fires in Jamaica, too! Wildfires can be very scary, I had to actively flee from one in Colorado. The droughts that are occurring seemingly everywhere certainly aren’t helping. I hope you stay safe!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Our saving grace in Jamaica is that we don’t have a lot of animals. We have a lot of birds though which hopefully are able to fly away in time. They will still be affected from the loss of habitat however. Thanks Josh! I’m doing my best to stay safe. Take care of yourself too ✨️

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This side of the world veld fires are such a scourge… Despite government intervention to try and curb the practise you will find people who will start wild fires to hunt mice in the veld, imagine causing a lot of damage just to smoke out small game animals to hunt…. Unsurprising there’s less and less to go round…

    People can be very inconsiderate

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, that sounds like a huge problem! Maybe once upon a time that practice would’ve been okay, but now that there are more people, less habitat, and crazy weather patterns, we need to be much more careful about how we use fire.


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