Why Are Wild Animals Afraid Of Fire? (Explained)

Why Are Wild Animals Afraid Of Fire
Fact Checked and Reviewed by: Mark Rhodes, Ph.D. - Wildlife Biologist
Dr. Mark Rhodes holds an MS in Fisheries and Wildlife along with a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology. He helps maintain our editorial standards of accuracy and quality. You can read more about Dr. Rhodes here.

If you observe animals during a wildfire, you’d likely see them trying to get away once it poses an imminent danger. According to the National Forest Foundation, some animals can be seen standing in water or running away once the fire gets close. Smaller animals also may burrow or hide under rocks to try and protect themselves from the fire.

This may indicate some fear, or at the very least, an instinct for survival against fire.

So, why are wild animals afraid of fire?

While animals are likely only afraid of fire if it poses a threat to them, this is going to depend on the animal’s own experience with fire because there are some animals out there that are more curious than afraid. The smoke, sounds, and heat associated with fire may also be scary for some animals. 

Below, we’ll talk a little more about if animals are afraid of fire and why. And, we’ll go over the difference between a campfire and a wildfire as far as how animals respond to it and whether they seem afraid.

Do Animals Have A Fear Of Fire?

It’s hard to say whether or not animals have a fear of fire. Many animals do run away from fire in the wild when it is large and poses a threat to them. That being said, there is a big difference between a rapidly spreading wildfire and a small, contained campfire.

With a large, spreading wildfire, there is a lot for an animal to be afraid of and run from. Wildfires emit light sparks and crackling sounds that might scare animals. Additionally, the smoke makes it hard to breathe, particularly for larger or taller animals, and animals are more likely to smell that smoke before they even see the fire.

In the case of campfires, animals likely associate them with humans. Therefore, their fear in this case likely stems from whether or not they are afraid of humans. Some animals are not afraid and likely associate campfires with warmth and food instead.

That being said, some animals are experiencing fire for the first time when they see it in a wildfire. Then, they may not have the knowledge or experience with fire to be afraid. They may be more curious and move toward the fire instead.

Are All Animals Afraid Of Fire?

It cannot be said that every animal is afraid of fire. After all, this might change based on an animal’s experience (or lack of experience) with fire. Some animals might be afraid of the sound, sparks, heat, or smoke, while others may come closer because they are curious.

In fact, one study found that chimps observed in the wild were not scared of wildfire. Instead of running away from the fire, these chimps observed it. The alpha male also performed what seemed to be a ritualistic dance in front of the fire, similar to a rain dance that chimps have been seen performing.

Another animal that has been observed being unafraid of fire are Australia’s Firehawks. These birds have been observed grabbing burning sticks or twigs and carrying them to new location, thus spreading the fire. Then, they wait and prey on animals that are fleeing the fire.

On the other end of the spectrum are animals like wolves, that will typically avoid even campfires if they are on their own. One hypothesis is that wolves avoid fire, even small ones, because they associate them with humans. Wolves have been hunted by people over the years and would likely avoid even campfires when alone. That being said, they may approach a fire if they are with other members of their pack.

Why Are Wild Animals Afraid Of Fire?

It’s really hard to answer “why” animals do anything. Researchers can only study animals, notice patterns, and make hypotheses about why they behave the way they behave. And, many wild animals have been observed trying to get away during wildfires.

This may have something to do with fear, though it may also have to do with an animal’s survival instinct. Many animals have this drive to survive for the purpose of reproduction and carrying on a species. So, when something like a fire poses a threat to these animals, they are going to do what needs to be done to survive, whether running away, flying away, burrowing, standing in water, or something else.

Animals with bad eyesight, they’re more likely to smell smoke before they see fire. And often, if they can see the fire, they are close enough to feel the heat in it and possibly perish unless they are able to get away.

Some animals are afraid of fire because they are curious and get close to it. Taller animals may choke on the smoke coming off the fire, while other animals are afraid of the sparks or sounds fire makes. They likely view it like a larger animal that just keeps getting bigger.

Despite animals running away, flying away, or taking other steps for survival, wildfires can be devastating to wildlife areas. There were about 17 million vertebrates including snakes, birds, and other animals that perished in the wildfires of 2020 in Brazil alone. And, a shocking 3 billion animals were killed in Australia by bushfires from June 2019 to February 2020.

So, even though animals may know enough to be afraid of fires, it doesn’t always mean that they can escape them in time. Animals often see smoke before seeing fire, and they may not know how to react or which way to run when that happens. They may also get trapped by the fire.

Are Wild Animals Afraid Of Campfires?

While some wild animals might be afraid of campfires, those that live in areas where humans frequent may not be. These animals would be familiar with contained fire like a campfire, which doesn’t spread like a wildfire does. They may even be able to distinguish between the two.

For example, bears are not usually afraid of campfires. Plus, bears are scavengers that have a love for food, so they’d likely be more attracted to the smell of food around the fire, rather than repelled by the smoke or heat.

Plus, there is something to be said about the differences between a small campfire and a much larger wildfire. Campfires are small, contained, and do not move. While they may put off some smoke, it’s a minimal amount compared to a wildfire. Wildfires are also much more unpredictable than a campfire.

Final Word

So, why are wild animals afraid of fire? When animals are afraid of fire, there are a number of things that might cause that fear. The sparks and light of a fire can be scary for some animals, as can the smoke and the heat. Animals may run from fire, but only if they know that it poses a threat to their safety.

That being said, it really depends on the individual animal and their personal experience with fire. Some animals are afraid of fire, but others are just curious. They may not know enough about wildfires to be afraid unless it’s directly affecting them or encroaching on them.

Additionally, there is a difference between a large, spreading wildfire. that poses a threat and a smaller, contained campfire. Animals often associate campfires with humans and their curiosity (or fear) depends on how they feel about humans. Some animals, like bears, may also associate campfires with food, while reptiles and snakes might associate it with warmth.

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