Biologists fear the wildfires in the western US could inflict lasting damage on species, including pygmy rabbits in Washington, where 50% of the state’s endangered species has been annihilated, and ecosystems, as the fires have burnt 3 million hectares, marking the West Coast’s worst fire season in at least 70 years.

Iran PressAmerica: Two weeks ago, conservation scientist Dominick DellaSala was at his home in Talent, Oregon, writing an opinion column warning that the hotter, drier weather that had sparked devastating wildfires in California could soon catalyze blazes across the western United States. 

Then, his power went out. Looking out his front door, he saw a wall of black smoke produced by a wildfire that was speeding toward Talent. “It was close,” recalls DellaSala, who works at the Earth Island Institute—so close that he had to evacuate, then wait and see whether his home would survive, Science reported.

So far this year, fires in Oregon, Washington, and California have burned some 3 million hectares, marking the West Coast’s worst fire season in at least 70 years. The blazes have killed at least 35 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, and caused extreme air pollution that has threatened the health of millions of residents. 

Ecologists fear the wildfires also could inflict lasting damage on species and ecosystems. In particular, they worry the loss of habitat could imperil species with small populations or restricted ranges, and that incinerated ecosystems will fail to rebound in a warming climate, leading to permanent landscape changes. 

“We are in unchartered territory here, and we just don’t know how resilient species and ecosystems will be to wildfires of the magnitude, frequency, and intensity that we are currently experiencing in the US West,” says S. Mažeika Patricio Sullivan, an ecologist at the Ohio State University, Columbus.

It’s too soon to say how many species the fires have put in jeopardy, researchers say. But Australia’s experience with its record fires last year has created anxiety; scientists there now say the habitat loss has imperiled dozens of species, and perhaps caused some to go extinct. 

And, already, there are worrying reports from the United States. In Washington, biologists estimate the fires have killed 50% of the state’s endangered pygmy rabbits, which inhabit sagebrush flats that burned this year. They believe only about 50 of North America’s smallest rabbit remain. 

Officials estimate the flames have also killed 30% to 70% of the state’s sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse, birds that also depend on sagebrush.

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