By Joseph Robertia
The smoke has dissipated and the ash is starting to cool on the nearly 8,000-acre Card Street Fire that scorched its way east from Sterling into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Among the acreage burned is a portion of the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area. The immediate concern when wildfires strike so close to human habitation is for people and their homes. But as that threat wanes, another concern rises — how does the blaze affect the animals that make those woods their home?
“It’s a question people always ask after a fire, but fire is a natural component of the landscape here, and while in the short run a few animals were undoubtedly lost, in the long run it will reshape the environment to benefit wildlife,” said Todd Eskelin, a biologist with the refuge and its resource adviser during and following the fire.
While last year five wolf pups made headlines when pulled from their smoldering den following the Funny River Fire, Eskelin said that most of the larger species — wolves, bears and moose —seem to have fared well while fleeing the Card Street Burn.
“We didn’t have a massive, several-mile-long wall of fire that moved quickly consuming everything in its path. There were times when this fire grew rapidly, but it still burned in patches and around swamps, muskegs, boggy areas and ponds, and animals are pretty adept at using these areas and doing what they have to do to survive,” he said.
Regular surveys are ongoing in the burned area, and Eskelin that said nearly every time he has been in the field he has seen evidence of these mammals.
“Whenever we go out we see tracks from all these species in the scorched earth,” he said.
Swampy areas certainly acted as refuge from the fire, and the area that burned probably didn’t have a large number of large mammals to start with, since it wasn’t their preferred habitat.
“It was mostly mature, dense, black spruce forest that went up, and it’s a limited number of species that utilize that,” he said. “The wolves and bear tend to hang around the east end a little more, where the fire didn’t get to. We’re also in a low snowshoe hare year, so lynx are relying more on squirrels and grouse, which also are more abundant around the Hidden Creek end,” he said.
A few species of songbird probably suffered the most losses from the fire, Eskelin said.
“Some birds, like this year’s crop of Myrtle warblers, may have been lost, but hopefully they had opportunities to get out, too. Swanson’s thrush adults probably made it out, but nesting ones might not have,” he said.
Many other avian species that could have been in harm’s way likely weren’t, due to habitat or the time of year the fire occurred.
“Most of our resident species nested earlier than the fire, so chicks from nut hatches, boreal chickadees, gray jays, woodpeckers — they would have all already fledged. Ruby-crowned kinglets and juncos are also early arrivers and nesters. And alder flycatchers and yellow warblers are late arrivals and don’t do well in that habitat, so were probably fine. Raptors also nest later and prefer hardwoods and birches for nesting,” he said.
The burned area may produce better bird habitat in the future, but time will tell on that score.
“Every fire is a learning exercise. Right now it’s a bit of wait and see as to what kind of habitat will come back. The Caribou Hills Fire (of 2007) brought back a lot of grass, but the Funny River fire seems to be bringing back more aspen and birch,” he said.
Eskelin said that the latter habitat type would be ideal for Skilak.
“Diversity of habitat types means a diversity of species will use it, especially in regard to birds. In the next two to three years we could see flycatchers, savanna and fox sparrows, swallows — all kinds of species showing up when that forest changes, and different flyways open up,” he said.
Mammals also will benefit from the new-forest foliage, Eskelin said, from small species like hare, coyotes and lynx, to wolves, bears and moose.
“We should start seeing the benefit to moose within six to eight years, and it’s a benefit that could last for 25 to 30 years,” he said.