As hundreds of people flee wildfires in California, so too do many animal species—such as this emu spotted yesterday near Potrero in San Diego County. Native to Australia, emus were originally imported to the United States to be raised on bird farms for their meat and oil.
But as drought and climate change exacerbate wildfires in Southern California, emus are among countless animals that must flee the flames.
So far, the ongoing Border Fire in Potrero has spread across 7,500 acres. Two other Southern California fires—the Reservoir and the Fish fires—have burned through more than 5,000 acres.
Birds often fly away from wildfires (unless they’re flightless—sorry, emus), while larger mammals run. Smaller critters might burrow into the ground, hide out in logs, or take cover under rocks. Predators have also been observed chasing after and eating prey as the animals try to get away from the flames.
Once the fire is put out, animals may find that their ecosystems have changed, but the results aren’t always devastating.
“People look at burned areas and think they're dead. They’re not dead. They’ve just changed,” said Patricia Kennedy, a wildlife biologist at Oregon State University, in a previous interview. “It's a whole new habitat.”
Many species actually require fire to reproduce. Heat from the flames can stimulate some fungi, like morel mushrooms, to release spores. Certain plants will seed only after a blaze. Wildfires serve so many natural functions that some ecologists have questioned how much the U.S. should fight them.
“It’s a bit of magical thinking that if you keep putting fires out, fires will go away,” said Paul Hessburg, a Forest Service plant pathologist in Wenatchee, Washington, in a previous interview. For instance, fighting smaller fires allows dry tinder to build up in forests, setting the stage for so-called megafires. “What happens is they get more severe, because you just keep loading a powder keg,” Hessburg said.
Scientists don’t have good estimates of how many animals are killed in wildfires each year, which makes it difficult to judge how California’s emus will be affected.
So far, at least one emu has been injured in the Border Fire. On Monday, an animal control officer attempted to help the injured emu, but was prevented by the bird’s owner, who fired his shotgun into the air to scare the officer away.
The animal control officer was unharmed, and the emu apparently ran away.