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Rare big-animal deaths in Angeles National Forest's fast-moving Station Fire

By Donna Barstow

It turns out, we all lost someone in the Station Fire.

The L.A.

Times reported on the big animals killed in the Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest weeks ago, and since that time a Google keyword phrase that people have been using most often to find my Griffith Park-oriented blog is, "how many animals were killed in the fire?"

The facts are hard to bear, but sometimes it helps to hear facts, rather than to imagine the worst. Kevin Cooper, a Wildlife Biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, tells me that surveys are seldom undertaken to determine how many animals died. (I assume no one

wants to pay for it.) A USFS team spent two weeks in the Station Fire area examining

its effects but wasn't focused on evidence of animal deaths. However, when they stopped

the vehicles, Cooper and others came upon three three bears, 12 deer, two coyotes, one bobcat and a fox. (The Times said they

found mountain lions, but this is not correct.)

Since the animals were

found by happenstance, this modest and informal survey hints at a  widespread loss of big animals. Here's the surprising reason why:

"Normally, we rarely see big mammals like this after a fire,

because they're able to outrun it. In my 20 years of experience, this is one of

the worst," says Cooper.

He believes that because this fire often ran uphill in very steep terrain, probably moving about 16 times faster than fire moves in flatter terrain, even very fleet animals were overtaken. Also, the brush was

incredibly thick, and bigger animals got caught in it, or couldn't run

through it.

Small animals can hide underground, but U.S.F.S. always find one species that doesn't survive, and that is a woodrat, which unfortunately is at the bottom of the food chain for the hard-hit bigger animals. Many birds perish

from toxic gas, not the smoke, and this can kill firemen, too. Quail, which survive by running fast on

the ground, sometimes suffer big casualties if they can't get airborne quickly enough.

During the Station Fire, I asked Officer Mike

Brown of the Los Angeles County Fire Department whether animals could

escape between the "bad" fire and the "good" fire--backfires set by firefighters. Brown said they always leave a route open for the fleeing animals.

Cooper had a somewhat different take, saying that setting backfires to burn off fuel is surprisingly

effective in stopping a fire BUT it's inevitable that some animals get

caught between the two waves: "It's hard for us to accept that, even now, technology just can't

control the energy of a fire. It's on its own terms, elemental. But we

keep trying."