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Wildlife Survives Arizona Wildfires - 2002-09-08

While the Rodeo Chediski fire forced thousands of people from their homes, animals in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona also fled their natural habitat in search of new quarters. Many have returned following the largest fire in Arizona's recorded history, but are still trying to adapt to the changed surroundings.

The Rodeo-Chediski fire started in mid-June and before it was fully contained in July, it had burned nearly 170-thousand hectares of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest and the White Mountain Apache Reservation. The blaze left behind a charred landscape and tens of thousands of burned trees. But even as their homes were going up in flames, the animals that live in the forest fared surprisingly well.

That was no surprise to Bruce Sitko, an information officer with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "Wildlife here and in other places across the globe have evolved with fire. Fire is part of nature. And as they evolve they also develop survival strategies. Birds can just fly away," he says. "Larger animals can move ahead of the fire or out of the path of the fire. Smaller animals burrow underground, go into rock dens."

A recent survey by wildlife officials found few animals that were left injured, dead or even orphaned. The game and fish department found four two-week old elk calves during the fire and is caring for them until they can return to the wild. Although habitats have been altered, Mr. Sitko says some species may actually benefit in the long run. "In the short term there will be some wildlife that has suffered, habitats have been impacted. But nature goes through these cycles of fire in order to regenerate itself and provide better quality habitat in the long run," he says.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department will continue to study how the blaze affected the wildlife population. Biologists are looking at water quality in habitats harmed by erosion where runoff has pushed silt into water systems. They are also determining mortality rates among species and documenting where animals are currently making their homes. Bruce Sitko says he believes that as the forest begins to regenerate, animals that feed in grasslands will likely benefit and tree dwelling species such as squirrels may suffer.

But while some animals are adapting to a changed landscape, others are looking for a habitat similar to the one they left behind. David Gaudy, Executive Director of the Arizona Wildlife Federation, says the key to helping those creatures lies in quickly restoring the habitats altered by the fire. Already, crews are reseeding burned areas to prevent erosion. "We're not really meddling, we're giving nature a little helping hand, I think," he says. "What nature would do in 10 years, we're going to try and help her do by next spring."

The huge fire left a mosaic pattern of burned and unburned areas throughout the forest. Mr. Gaudy says animals flock to these untouched areas in unsustainable numbers. "We've raised artificial concentrations of wildlife in areas that were already degraded by drought. So there was barely enough food there to support animals that already existed and we now may have doubled or tripled the population in there."

As vegetation returns to the burned areas, so will the animals. Wildlife officials say the recovery is going well and the seasonal rains have been light enough that their restoration efforts are ahead of schedule.