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Here’s What Goes on Inside a Forest When a Massive Wildfire Hits

Elk in Montana Elk in Montana. (Photo: Brocken Inaglory/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

When the Elk Complex fire tore past Pine, Idaho, in August of 2013, it was fueled by windy, dry conditions and an abundance of overgrown trees. At one point, it had gained so much momentum that it moved like a giant amoeba, growing and reproducing by throwing out spots of fire a mile ahead of itself. By the time fire crews brought it under control, 38 homes were destroyed and the majestic forest of Ponderosa pines, for which the town is named, looked more like a legion of blackened skeletons. Together with the Pony Complex, a second fire that raced through the brush a few miles to the south, more than 300,000 acres were burned.

Local wildlife was hit especially hard. Elk and deer emerged from the forests with some of their hides burned off. Bears were taken to burn rehabilitation units. Even a couple of hawks, usually able to get away, were blinded by the choking plumes of smoke.

As for the yellow jackets, they just seemed mad. They descended and swarmed on anything they could consume, from smoke-stunned butterflies to opened bottles of coke. The fire crews seemed to bear the brunt of their wrath. It didn’t matter whether they were tromping through brush, or unloading supplies from a helicopter: their arms were constantly in motion, swatting at the air, sometimes swinging wildly at their tiny yellow foes, with the hills still smoking behind them.

Rod Collins, one of the fire chiefs on the scene, said he had been stung three times. For one of his men, it was six. It was assumed that the yellow jackets’ underground nests had been incinerated by flames that had burrowed down tree roots.

  The Elk Complex Fire in the Boise National Forest near Pine, ID The Elk Complex Fire in the Boise National Forest near Pine, ID. (Photo: US Department of Agriculture/flickr)

My family and I caught a glimpse of this apocalyptic landscape almost by accident, after another massive fire had come uncomfortably close to Ketchum, Idaho, where my parents live for part of the year. With evacuations underway there, we had left in the middle of the night, and driven two hours west to Pine, hoping for less smoky skies. Instead, we found ourselves in the midst of an extensive cleanup effort and a lingering sense of panic—a sense that we experienced firsthand one morning, when a leisurely hike across the dried up portion of the Anderson Ranch Reservoir turned into a frenzied sprint, with a mob of angry yellow jackets buzzing around our heads.

For someone who had never witnessed a wildfire up close, it seemed natural that local wildlife would be injured and disturbed. This assumption seemed to be confirmed when 29 wild horses were killed this summer in the Soda Fire, a fast-moving blaze south of Boise, and again when reports that Cinder the Bear, who had been badly injured last year in a wildfire in Washington, appeared to be avoiding the fires this summer.

But as it turns out, what happened to the wildlife in Pine wasn’t normal at all. In fact, it was highly unusual. And nearly all of my assumptions, including the one about why the yellow jackets were so angry, would turn out to be wrong.

“That particular fire went hot and fast and blew up in the canyon behind Pine and Featherville, where it caught 20 or so elk, and some bears, and a few other animals by surprise,” says Steve Neddo, a wildlife biologist for Idaho Fish & Game, in Boise. 

A yellow jacket A yellow jacket. (Photo: nick ta/flickr)

“Because of the conditions, we were anticipating some really horrendous wildlife losses, and the officers did have to euthanize a few badly injured animals,” says Neddo. “But that was an anomaly. Normally animals are pretty good at surviving fire. Most of the time the fire isn’t moving faster than they are. A lot of times, you’ll see elk and deer just foraging along the edge of the fire as it creeps along.”

That’s because grazers and foragers such as deer, elk, and bison have been evolving with fire for some 10,000 years. Long before there were such things as a logging industry, forest management plans, and fire science theory, fire was nature’s way of refreshing and regenerating forests. Fires were allowed to burn until the rains or snows snuffed them out, which could mean months or years.

And unlike the image popularized by the Disney movie Bambi, of animals fleeing a fire in a panic, fires were also good for the species who adapted and thrived alongside them. Neddo describes watching GPS radio-collared bear activity that shows how bears just kind of “hunker down as the fires passes.” He adds, “I don’t know if they going underground, or if they just kind of crouch down, but they wait until the fire goes by, and then they get up and start moving around again.”

And even though 99.9% of insects are killed when a fire rips through the habitat they’re tied to— grasshoppers, for instance, fare poorly in a brush fire—new species arrive soon after to take advantage of the carnage. Certain species of flies are attracted to smoldering logs. Longhorn and Flathead beetles feast on dead or dying timber, and the larva they lay in the wood attracts certain wasps that come to eat them. From there, more miniature insect kingdoms grow and evolve.

The Elk Complex Fire threatens the Incident Command Post on Aug. 8, 2013.The Elk Complex Fire nears the Incident Command Post in August 2013. (Photo: US Department of Agriculture/flickr)

“It may take many many years before the same insects that were there before the fire burned are able to come back,” says Richard Zack, a professor of entomology at Washington State University. “But there will be a tremendous sequence of insects that come in over the years that take advantage of that habitat as it changes.”

Understanding how these fire cycles work has had important ramifications for species populations, as well as public policy. For instance, the major fire of 1910, which burned 3 million acres in Montana, Idaho, and Washington in only two days, and killed 87 people, was a defining moment in modern forest fire policy. For the next hundred years, that policy was total fire suppression.

And yet, according to Neddo, that particular fire, as well as other big fires in the 1920s and ‘60s, were actually beneficial to deer and elk populations, because by “moving millions of acres of forest,” the burns made more brush and grass available for them to eat.

Now, nearly half a century later, as the elk population in north central Idaho continues to decline, Neddo thinks they could use a little fire.

“Those forests are now old and need to be burned again in order for those populations to rebound,” Neddo says. “During drought cycles the fires burned, during the wet cycle forests grew. Those are things that wildlife are fairly used to, but we’ve been putting our values and needs on top of that and changing the system.”

Results of the Great Fire of 1910 in Idaho. (Photo: Library of Congress

Such thinking and observations reflect how fire science is evolving. After nearly a century of suppressing fires, the forest service, fire science experts, and fire ecologists think we should be letting these fires run their course, unless they’re threatening property or lives. The theory says, in part, that if there is less overgrown timber and brush to burn, fires will be less fierce. The forests around Pine were said to be hugely overgrown.

Yet a dangerous cocktail of drought, climate change, and federal forest policy means that extreme, fast-moving fires appear to be more and more common, and they are catching wildlife unprepared. The wild horses that were killed in the Soda Fire “were probably caught in a draw that they couldn’t escape,” Neddo says. And they weren’t the only ones.

When staff from the Bureau of Land Management went out in helicopters to assess the damage, they reported seeing Jack Rabbit carcasses everywhere. It’s unclear whether the rabbits passed out from the smoke, and then burned, or were trapped when the fire changed direction. What’s more clear is that their deaths will affect the raptors.

“Golden Eagles are pretty adaptable, so they may just switch over to feeding on ground squirrels,” says Rob Spaul, a researcher at Boise State University who studies how human recreation affects Golden Eagles, and whose research zone was affected by the fire. “Still, it’s going to have long term consequences for them.” 

A Golden Eagle in flight A Golden Eagle in flight. (Photo: Kelly Colgan Azar/flickr)

The eagles’ nests were affected too. “The reports coming out for our area of study are saying that 68 Golden Eagle nests were in the burn area,” says Spaul, who checks on those nests with his colleagues throughout the year, recording detailed notes, and tracking them with GPS technology. “We’ve had someone from the Associated Press trying to get in touch with us about that, and one thing we’re trying to dispel is that doesn’t necessarily mean that 68 nests were actually burned. It just means they were in that area.”

As for the yellow jackets in Pine, it turns out they were in fact angry, but it wasn’t because they lost their homes. According to Rich Zack, most of the yellow jackets within the fire’s perimeter probably burned along with their nests. So the wasps we encountered likely came from beyond the burn area, and were probably upset with the firefighters for tromping through their territory. But above all, like everything else in southern Idaho that year, from the trees to the deer to the dried up reservoir bed, the yellow jackets were just really, really thirsty.

“I’ve been in some of these forests in August, when it’s really hot and dry, and there’s a little pool of water and there will be thousands of yellow jackets trying to get in there and get a drop to bring back to the colony,” Zack says. It seems like a pretty natural response.