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December 2020
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By Alexa Johnson

Burning Question’s Answer - It’s fire season again in California, and certainly time to take all precautions to protect life and property. However, from an ecosystem perspective, periodic fires can be as important as rain. California is dominated by a vegetation type called chaparral, and chaparral tends to burn. Historically, California chaparral would burn every 30 to 200 years. Those have been naturally recurring fires caused by, in many cases, lightning.

The real problem these days is that, due to human activity, invasive plants and other factors, fires are an annual event. If our only concern were to keep fires from happening, the only real solution would be to just cover the whole state in a layer of cement. But seriously, like all things in nature, the issue gets more interesting the closer you look at it. Let’s dig in!

Under natural circumstances, many of California’s native plants can persist or, in some cases, thrive with fire. “Thrive with fire?” you might ask. That seems counterintuitive. That’s because we perceive fire from a human standpoint as a danger to ourselves and a threat to our homes. However, from an ecological perspective, fire can provide numerous benefits. For one, it eliminates dead and diseased trees that no longer grow sprouts or produce seeds. This opens the canopy above so new seedlings have the sun and space necessary to grow. Fire recycles nutrients into the soil. In arid climates, like Southern California’s, decomposition happens slowly. Fire accelerates this process, turning leaf litter and dead wood into mineral-rich ash.

Fire also is a powerful force in controlling non-native plants that are not fire-adapted. This reduces competition so that native plants have the opportunity to flourish. These native plants, including a number of rare and endemic species, provide us with ecological services, such as soil stabilization, clean water and air, and food and habitat for wildlife.

In a chaparral environment, many plants actually need fire in order for their seeds to germinate. Plants such as the manzanita, ceanothus, and chamise wait for one of three primary fire cues to signal the proper time for their seeds to germinate. These cues are the heat, charred wood and smoke. Extreme heat causes impermeable seeds to crack, allowing water to enter and germination to begin. Charred wood and smoke send chemical cues that alter internal seed membranes, stimulating growth. The influence of fire allows these dormant seeds to become activated and grow in this new, nourishing environment.

So, now that we know that naturally occurring, periodic fires can be a good thing, we also have to say that most wildfires aren’t naturally generated. Human activities cause most of them. Campaigns against carelessly disposed cigarette butts and improperly maintained campfires predate Smokey the Bear, but these haphazard practices remain great hazards themselves. Sparks from equipment and outright arson also have made fire a much more frequent occurrence.

This year, approximately 5,600 wildfires will burn California lands. Chaparral systems take years to recover after fires. Frequently recurring fires deplete native plant seed banks in the soil. They also drain deep, uncharred taproots of their regenerative energy. This allows highly flammable, non-native, quickly-reproducing, weedy grasses to take over.

So, this leaves us with two basic truths:
•    Ecosystems evolve to take advantage of the infrequent fires caused by natural forces.
•    Frequent, man-made fires usually are not good for nature.

Inferno Island: Fire-Season Coping

Also contributing to this edition were Frank Hein and the Education and Conservation Departments.

Edited by Jerry Roberts

Issue #16 / All About Fire


Fire! Catalina’s Friend or Foe?
Preventing Wildfires on Catalina
Fact or Fiction: Can Goats Stem Fires?
Did You Know … Fires Increase Native Plants      

Catalina Island Conservancy file photo

The 2007 Island Fire burned 4,760 acres, or about 10 percent of the Island. This was a man-made fire that occurred outside the natural pattern, or season, for fire, and had
a catastrophic impact on the ecosystems. The Conservancy has assisted in the recovery of the ecosystems by erecting fence exclosures to protect recovering rare plants, replanting native vegetation, and implementing erosion control measures.

Missed recent issues?
Issue #1 / All About Bison

Issue #2 / All About Birds

Issue #3 / All About Plants
Issue #4 / All About Eagles
Issue #5 / All About Ravens & Crows
Issue #6 / All About Natives & Invasives  
Issue #7 / All About Rain
Issue #8 / All About Bison Roundup
Issue #9 / All About Foxes
Issue #10 / All About Weeds
Issue #11 / All About Eagle Hatchlings
Issue #12 / All About Snakes
Issue #13 / All About Diurnal Raptors
Issue #14 / All About Diurnal Raptors II
Issue #15 / All About Giants & Dwarves



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