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Fires Aid Some Florida Wildlife

The wildfires sweeping through Florida caused heartache for people whose homes were in their paths.

But for some animals, the blazes are another story.

Burning clears out underbrush for species like the gopher tortoise. And other critters can share in the wealth.

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Fires are "critical for Florida and the habitat here," said Lt. Joy Hill of the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission. "Most of the animals in Florida are well-equipped to deal with fires."

Hot, dry conditions have helped the wildfires sweep across the state since Memorial Day, burning 218,000 acres.

The good news is, some vegetation and trees, such as the longleaf pine, need fire to germinate, Hill said.

Fires also clear out underbrush for species like the gopher tortoise. Once the underbrush is gone, fresh plants grow up, giving the tortoises more to eat.

"It's just a wonderful time for them," Hill said.

To survive during fires, tortoises dig burrows 30 to 40 feet long and 10 feet underground.

They also allow other critters - like snakes, toads, frogs, rabbits, armadillo and possum - to share their homes.

"They can just wait out the fire down there," she said.

Larger animals, like deer and bears, tend to get out of the way, while birds fly off until they're out of the smoke, said Annie Dziergowski, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Jacksonville.

"Even the scrub jays will move on to other places," Dziergowski said.

"Other raptors will hang around and take advantage of it by eating the smaller things that are trying to escape the fires," she said.

The fires and smoky haze, it turns out, have come at a good time of year for Florida's bald eagle population.

"It's not a crucial time, because the eagles' nesting season ended in mid-May. Most of them are out foraging or have migrated on to other areas," said Dziergowski.

Still, Hill acknowleged, there will be casualties.

The blazes do burn some animals to death, and can rob some species such as the threatened red-cockaded woodpecker of their homes. The woodpeckers need old-growth pine trees for nesting.

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