From bison to birds: How animals can help stop wildfires

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • 2020, the hottest year on record, was also the worst year for wildfires around the world.
  • A quarter of Australia’s forests burned as did a record 4.2 million hectares in the US.
  • Alongside human firefighters, animals can play a role in stopping fires.
  • By eating flammable vegetation, even insects have a part to play.

From digital maps that forecast the path of bushfires to drones creating firebreaks, there’s no shortage of high-tech ideas to help stop wildfires spreading. But what if nature already has a solution that’s not often considered?

According to a team of Australian scientists, animals, birds and even insects could be effective weapons against bushfires. Reintroducing wildlife that eats the parts of trees and bushes most likely to catch fire could stop bushfires in their tracks.

The team, led by Dr Claire Foster of the Australian National University (ANU), says the feeding habits of animals are “an often-overlooked form of ecosystem engineering” which could make fires easier to control.

Animals to the rescue

There are already examples of this method in action. Back in 2019, a herd of 500 goats were credited with helping to save the Ronald Reagan Presidential library in Southern California from a wildfire after they ate flammable scrub surrounding the complex.

In Spain, conservationists are using bison to reduce the risk of wildfires. The animal, now extinct in Europe, is being reintroduced to a forest area in Andalucia where they are busy eating the scrub that can spread fires.

Fernando Morán head of the European Bison Center in Spain told Cordoba Today that the animals act as a “living brush cutter” – a third of their diet is wood fibre.

There are about 150 bison in Spain in 35 breeding centres, but Morán hopes to see 1,000 roaming the countryside in future.

Bison eat the highly flammable forest underbrush that helps wildfires spread.
Bison eat the highly flammable forest underbrush that helps wildfires spread. Image: Pixabay/Ridoe

Creatures great and small

But it’s not just big animals that have a role to play in fighting wildfires. “We found a huge variety of animals that can influence fire,” ANU’s Dr Foster told Popular Science. “One of the things I really started to appreciate in this review was insects and other invertebrates,” she added.

Some insects break down the leaf litter, allowing microbes to consume it more quickly. Birds too have a part to play. Australian bird the malleefowl heaps leaves on the forest floor on which to lay its eggs, creating mini-fire gaps, her research found.

At the opposite end of the scale, as they travel through forests elephants create well-trodden paths that can act as firebreaks. Like the birds, insects and microbes, these “patches” of cleared land created by animals can slow or even halt the spread of fires.

Not all animal influences on the environment are beneficial when it comes to stopping fires, though. A study of the effects of cattle and hares on previously burned areas in Patagonia found that by eating young trees the animals encouraged the development of highly flammable scrubland.

American Bark Beetles weaken and kill trees which therefore burn more readily and insects which feed on leaf litter can slow down its decomposition, leaving more fuel for wildfires on the forest floor, says Dr Foster.

A study for the US Forestry Service found that grazing animals tend to favour deciduous plants and trees, leaving the much more flammable coniferous varieties standing. Saplings create a “fire ladder” that can set the whole forest ablaze.

The alarming global spread of wildfires
Global fire alerts have increase 13% compared to 2019. Image: Statista

Increased fire activity

The ANU report comes after a year in which wildfires raged across the globe.

Last year tied with 2016 as the hottest on record, according to NASA, with average global temperatures 1.02°C above the baseline for the years 1951-1980 and continuing a seven-year trend of warming. It was a terrible year for wildfires.

In the United States, a record 4.2 million hectares of land was burned by 58,250 fires, two-fifths of them in California, according to Congressional research. More than 400,000 hectares were burned in Europe, the European Commission said, with the total burned area in the EU above the whole-year average of the past 12 years

A quarter of Australia’s forests burned in what Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a “black summer”, which Reuters reported killed 33 people and ravaged over 24 million hectares. Deadly fires blazed in Brazil, China, Greece, India, Poland, Scotland, Syria, Turkey and Ukraine.

NASA satellite tracking detected 1.4 million individual forest fires in the Amazon last year, up from 1.1 million in 2019. “Fire activity was up significantly in 2020. All types of fires contributed to the increase, including deforestation fires and understory fires, the most environmentally destructive types,” said Douglas Morton, chief of NASA’s Biospheric Sciences Laboratory.

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