California Wildfires Ecological Toll Light, Experts Say

Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles
for National Geographic News
October 24, 2007

Wildfires still raged at several locations in southern California on Wednesday, even as easing winds gave firefighters hope that the flames could be brought under control.

Now in their fourth day, the fires have burned about 410,000 acres (1,700 square kilometers) from Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border, destroying some 1,500 homes and forcing the evacuations of more than half a million people.

The financial toll is expected to be devastating, with losses already estimated at more than a billion U.S. dollars in San Diego County alone.

The ecological costs resulting from the fires may be less severe, however, even though deer, bears, and other wildlife may have perished in the fires.

"These [ecological] systems have evolved with fire," said Eric Loft, the chief of wildlife at California's Department of Fish and Game.

"Folks will report on seeing burned animals, sometimes bears with paws burned, but the long-term effects are positive for wildlife.

"It rejuvenates the habitat," he added. "Native plants germinate anew and provide a new, lush growth for wildlife to eat."

Benefits of Fire

The blazes began on Sunday in more than a dozen locations, including coastal Malibu northwest of Los Angeles.

The fires were aided by unseasonally hot temperatures, strong Santa Ana winds, and a prolonged drought that has left much of southern California's scrubland and forests tinder-dry.

In television images, deer could be seen fleeing from the flames.

(Related: pictures: "California Fires Force Animal Evacuation [October 24, 2007].)

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