We humans, too, have been imperiled by a century of overzealous firefighting. Managed and prescribed burns, or “good fire,” can help preempt town-swallowing “megafires” by creating what the reporter Elizabeth Weil has described as “a black-and-green checkerboard” of varying flammability. Wildlife biologists likewise celebrate this mosaic, which is formed by different burn intensities, or “pyrodiversity.” One 2018 study, for instance, found that although adult black-backed woodpeckers foraged in severely burnt areas, their offspring hung out in still-living trees nearby, perhaps because the canopy served as a shield from hawks. The needs of woodpeckers and humans might thus be aligned: We are both creatures of pyrodiversity.
Historically, the fire mosaic protected animals by allowing for refugia, fire-resistant spots that shelter wildlife during burns and in their aftermath. Refugia come in many forms: They can be talus slopes or snowfields, beaver ponds or old-growth forests. Nearly all of them are becoming scarce. California has drained 90 percent of its wetlands in the past century, while Oregon has cut down a similar proportion of its old growth, edging out rare creatures such as the red tree vole and the spotted owl. As climate-fueled fires burn larger and hotter, refugia, and the pyrodiversity they encourage, may become rarer still.
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“We celebrate the birth of young forests, like the birth of any child, but we’re also worried about the old,” Meg Krawchuk, a pyrogeographer at Oregon State University, told me. “We lost so many of them in the past, and fire is nibbling away at them now.”
Refugia aren’t just becoming scarcer; they’re also harder to reach. When you’re hemmed in by people, even the act of fleeing fire puts you in harm’s way: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recently warned that bobcats, cougars, and bears may become roadkill as they seek unburned habitat. The problem, says Bev Law, a professor emeritus at Oregon State, is that we have failed to adequately protect the corridors that wildlife need to navigate fragmented landscapes—not only immediately after fires, but as climate change rearranges their niches in the longer term. “Animals need escape routes, but there’s been a huge loss of connectivity between intact forests,” Law says.
Human settlement, as Gallie told me, is a “preexisting condition” that makes otherwise resilient species vulnerable. Our roads, our sprawl, our farms, our clear-cuts: They are all comorbidities. Take the Columbia Basin pygmy rabbit, which has been hopping across Washington’s wind-blasted sagebrush steppe for millennia. The rabbits endured thousands of fires in their evolutionary history, hunkering down in burrows as the flames passed overhead and, later, feasting on the rejuvenated sagebrush. But now agriculture and development have devoured 80 percent of the steppe since the mid-1800s, squeezing rabbits into tiny recovery areas. In that context, a single fire can pose a threat—a natural force in an unnatural world.
Given enough time and space, though, even the pygmy bunnies could still benefit from the Pearl Hill Fire. Elsewhere in Washington, Gallie has observed high rabbit numbers in areas with lots of old sagebrush stumps. When he asked some locals about the source of the stumps, they told him it was a fire, way back in the 1980s.
“It shows us that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Gallie said. “It’s just that the tunnel is 30 years long.”