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Bighorn Fire is displacing wildlife, but most can reach safely and re-establish elsewhere

Bighorn Fire is displacing wildlife, but most can reach safely and re-establish elsewhere

A Chinook helicopter dumps water on the Bighorn Fire in the front range of the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Catalina Foothills homeowners weren’t the only ones being displaced by the Bighorn Fire.

A vast array of wildlife — songbirds, deer, sheep, mountain lions, rabbits, coatimundi and others — appear to be evacuating to safer ground as flames burn through their normal habitats in the Catalina Mountains, a state official said.

That raises the potential for increased interaction with good-hearted humans who may unintentionally cause them harm, said Mark Hart, a spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the state agency in charge of protecting wildlife.

“Whatever you do, don’t feed them,” Hart said in an interview Friday.

If you feel bad because they seem thirsty, he said, only put out enough water to wet their whistles — about a pie tin’s worth at a time. Putting out larger amounts — say, a few gallons at a time — can attract crowds of large feeder animals that in turn can attract mountain lion predators, Hart said.

That already happened recently to one Tucson homeowner, though it wasn’t in relation to the fire, he said.

To report a displaced critter in your yard, call Arizona Game and Fish at (623) 236-7201. The state dispatch center is staffed around the clock.

Historically, most wildlife displaced by forest fires in the Santa Catalina Mountains, where the fire has burned more than 7,000 acres, were able to escape and eventually re-establish themselves near their previous homes, or in similar terrain, Hart said.

Anecdotally, that seems to be happening this time, he said.

A few days ago, a group of mule deer were spotting midday moving west of the general fire area by crossing North Oracle Road on a wildlife overpass near Catalina State Park.

“You usually don’t see mule deer crossing in broad daylight. It’s normally around sunrise or sunset,” Hart said.

Wildfires aren’t uncommon in the area and some of the animals may have been through this before, he said.

“This is the third fire in the Catalinas in this general area in the past decade. Most of the wildlife is fleet of foot enough to get out of the way,” said Hart, who has worked on four other wildfires besides the Bighorn Fire.

“We’re talking about a 7,000-acre fire in a wild area of 150,000 acres or so. So there’s plenty of habitat left to go around,” he said.

That might not be the case, though, if the flames ever went low enough to consume Sonoran Desert habitat, which hasn’t happened and has not been mentioned as a threat so far.

Animals such as the desert tortoise, unable to make a speedy escape, could burrow underground to survive but then wake up to a charred landscape devoid of the food they need to stay alive, he said.

So far, Game and Fish has not received any reports of animals dying in the Bighorn Fire, Hart said.

Once the fire is out, Game and Fish will conduct a detailed survey of the area to document the extent to which wildlife was affected, he said.

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at 573-4138 or calaimo@tucson.com. On Twitter: @StarHigherEd

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As residents in Tucson watched the Bighorn Fire burn across the mountain range, some wondered if the fire really needed to get so big, or if the firefighting strategy failed by not quickly smothering the fire while it was small. "It's easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback," said a University of Arizona fire ecologist. "They were doing all they could."

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