Catalina Island Fire: May 10-15, 2007
Frequently Asked Questions
How did the fire start?
The fire was ignited by a spark from a welding torch.
The Island is fortunate not to have suffered more damage than it did. A home and six commercial structures were lost within Avalon city limits. On Conservancy-stewarded land, some fences and signs, plus some recreational and camping facilities were lost, as well as about 4,800 acres of chaparral, grassland, coastal sage scrub, and oak woodland or about one tenth of the island. Luckily, most camping and recreational facilities were outside the fire area.
What is the impact of fire in Catalinas wildlands?
The flora of Catalina Island evolved with occasional fires. Seeds germinate from the seed bank in the soil, and most trees and shrubs re-sprout from their bases. There are also several unique fire follower species plants that thrive within the nutrient-rich and low-competition conditions that follow a fire. Some of the more widely known fire-follower species that are native to the island are whispering bells, fire poppies, and Catalina manzanita.
Some have said that fire is actually good for the ecosystem on Catalina.
Actually, there were great losses from this fire. For example, large stands of old oaks, numerous ironwood groves, and many mature Catalina manzanitas were burned. While many will survive and re-sprout, it will take years for them to achieve the splendor and beauty they had before the fire and to support the native wildlife as they did before. Natural fires on Catalina are very rare. Catalina’s flora evolved with only occasional fires, and unfortunately, that’s not what the norm has been on the island; only six of 306 fires in the last hundred years were from natural causes. Luckily, very few of these human-caused fires have been large enough to cause substantial damage. (Note: Of the 306 fires, 71 were structures only, 139 in were in natural areas, and the rest were either vehicles or unknown.)
Catalina's unique plant communities are adapted to particular fire patterns, not fire in general. Too much fire or fire at the wrong time of year can seriously damage or even completely eliminate many of the island’s native ecosystems. Some of Catalina’s beautiful, old-growth stands of chaparral that haven’t burned in centuries represent some of California’s most priceless natural resources. This fire occurred outside what would be considered the natural pattern, or season, for fire.
Catalina’s ecosystems are currently under recovery from over a century of impacting activities, including the introduction of numerous large herbivores and invasive plants. (Note: The largest native herbivore on the island is the Catalina California ground squirrel; the deer and bison are introduced species) Seedlings that emerge after a fire are often browsed or trampled by the deer and bison. Even older shrubs and trees which are not killed in the fire and naturally resprout from their bases have been shown in post-fire studies on Catalina to have been killed during the regrowth stage due to incessant browsing by introduced herbivores.
So was the fire beneficial or not?
What we can say with certainty is that this human-caused fire took place outside of the natural fire pattern that would normally benefit this fragile ecosystem. It is not an event we would have desired. Furthermore, even a naturally caused fire can also be detrimental to an ecosystem in which introduced herbivores and invasive plants are part of the landscape.
How has the wildlife fared?
Most birds are able to fly away during a fire. Deer and other large animals also tend to run away. Squirrels, reptiles, and many insects use burrows to hide from the fire. As the vegetation is growing back the many resources it provides to wildlife are quickly utilized again. Wildlife is very adaptable when it comes to dealing with a natural phenomenon such as fire. Some species, such as cavity nesting birds, insects, and insectivores greatly benefit from the abundance of dead wood and burned out trunks left behind by a fire. The opening up of the habitat lends itself to easier hunting for certain predators. There are many positive benefits for wildlife, but that does not mean that the fire was a net positive for wildlife as a whole or in the future on the island. The welfare of wildlife is intertwined with the welfare of habitat, and while the habitat will attempt to regenerate post fire, in most cases vigorously and with more biological diversity than the pre-fire late-successional habitat, the effects of introduced herbivores on the success of this regeneration will likely leave the landscape in a further degraded state for the wildlife of the island. Additionally, the invasive non-native plants, such as flax-leaved broom (Genista linifolia), can more thoroughly dominate a post-fire landscape, as is very evident within the burned areas surrounding Avalon. These long-term negative effects on the integrity of the native habitat will undoubtedly impact the wildlife and serve to illustrate the fact that ecologically rejuvenating effects of fire can be negated when such serious threats to biodiversity (i.e. introduced species) are present in the environment.
The Conservancy removed goats from the Island. Some people allege that if they were still here, there wouldnt have been a fire.
This is not true. The lack of presence of goats didn't cause the fire, and their presence couldn’t have prevented it. An ignition caused the fire. The extremely low moisture in the plants caused by the harshest drought on Catalina in 100 years combined with strong winds sustained the fire. Having goats on the island would not have changed the drought or wind conditions.
There are many strategies to reduce brush, or fuel load. Goats are never an appropriate strategy in a nature preserve where rare native plants and animals are being protected. Goats eat those native plants, which in turn are habitat for the wildlife. Goats also are never an appropriate strategy in island ecosystems where native plants evolved in the absence of intensive pressures caused by human-introduced grazing and browsing animals like deer. Islands generally have more simplified ecosystems than those found on the adjacent mainland. Their simplified food webs are easily disrupted when non-native animals are introduced. The negative effects of introduced animals have been documented worldwide.
While domesticated goats have been used to clear vegetation in some urban and agricultural areas and under strict controls, the use of goats in protected ecosystems with rugged topography in California (and particularly on islands) is not a viable option because:
Many of us who live in Southern California and especially on Catalina, enjoy that we’re able to live close to wildlands. That means it is best to approach the protection of our communities and homes from the structure out, not from the wildlands in, or by changing the wildlands significantly. Otherwise, we destroy what we are trying to preserve. Strategies include community design, building design, landscape design, and personal responsibility. On Catalina, the various agencies and land managers will continue to cooperate to incorporate lessons learned into strategies for managing the interface between our community and our beloved wildlands.
There are two major threats to the recovery of Catalina’s natural areas: invasive weeds and damage from browsing introduced deer and bison that will eat newly germinated native plants, particularly the unique endemics, to the point that they are eliminated. We decided to protect the burn area with a set of exclosures, 100-acre fenced areas that keep the introduced animals away from the plants. These exclosures have since been reduced in size and number. There are now 16 exclosures within the fire perimeter that encompass about 64 acres total. The invasive plant program, CHIRP, continues to monitor the burn area for invasive plant species and removes them when found.
What about future fire risk?
Obviously, this is of great concern to the entire Island. The Conservancy works closely with the Los Angeles County Fire Department to follow all rules and regulations and comply fully and is inspected each year. The organization will continue to work with these professionals to assess the best strategies for fire control in the interior of the island.