The half-dozen wildfires burning more than 150,000 acres and prompting mass evacuations in Southern California have devastated the region, but only one human death has been reported as of Friday evening.
Animals have had a harder time escaping harm. About 25 race horses were killed at a training center in San Diego County, with others left unaccounted for, as the blaze consumed several barns. And Ventura County Animal Services tweeted Thursday that it was caring for more than 700 animals, 150 of them horses, that had been displaced by the Thomas Fire.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
But what about wild animals? What should you do if you see one that appears to be in danger from a fire?
A video posted online, of a man pulling over along Highway 1 to save a wild rabbit scurrying toward the fire, quickly went viral and the man, self-described animal lover Oscar Gonzales, was widely hailed as a hero on social media.
In the wake of that video’s popularity, some experts are advising: Don’t try to save wild animals, especially at the risk of your own safety.
Small mammals like rabbits, perhaps even the one in the video, are generally good at dealing with fires, limited research indicates, so they may have good reasons for doing what they’re doing even if they appear to be in danger, LiveScience reported Thursday. LiveScience further said that some small rodents are capable of rescuing their offspring, suggesting that human intervention could potentially interrupt that process.
The site concludes its article: “Leave the creature to its business. It knows what it’s doing.”
Other animals aren’t as endangered, or can even benefit, according to a 2014 article by National Geographic. Predators often feed on animals as they try to escape wildfires. “In those short-term situations, there’s always winners and losers,” ecologist Mazeika Sullivan told the magazine.
Animals have evolved to deal with wildfires, National Geographic points out, and “fire is a natural part” of certain landscapes, Sullivan adds.
False information about helping wild animals has also spread.
Rumor-investigating website Snopes deemed false a claim that the “Forestry Department” told Southern Californians to leave buckets of water in their yards for use by wild animals. The U.S. Forest Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife both rejected making such a claim, and recommended not to intervene.
Peter Tira, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told SFGate: “If you encounter a wild animal in your neighborhood, leave it alone. Fire or no fire, just let the animals be.”