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INFERNO ISLAND: FIRE-SEASON COPING

Resilient Natives & Tinder Invasives - Like the rest of California, Catalina is covered in vast expanses of chaparral, along with a varied patchwork of other fire-adapted plant communities. Fires here, however, are less frequent than on the mainland. This is because we’re isolated from the influence of surrounding land masses. Thankfully, fires don’t jump 22 miles across the sea. This isolation also makes the Island’s ecosystems incredibly delicate, as islands tend to have a higher number of rare and unique species.

In the last 100 years, Catalina has experienced 299 fires. Only six of them were caused by natural means. The majority of our fires have been caused by human activities, such as running mechanical or electrical equipment, starting and then leaving campfires, or even plane crashes.

Many of Catalina’s plants have developed adaptations that allow them to spring back from the disturbance of fire. For simplicity’s sake, we’re only going to discuss two common fire adaptations. However, as always, the topic is much more complex, and one great resource is Richard Halsey’s Fire, Chaparral, and Survival in Southern California. Much valuable information is also available on the Conservancy’s website.

We already discussed the subject of seeds that require fire for germination. On Catalina, these seeds include felt-leaf ceanothus, big-pod ceanothus, Channel Islands tree poppy, and the endemic Catalina manzanita.

Yet another adaptation of our native plants is the ability to generate stump sprouts, or grow new sprouts from seemingly dead portions of the plant. While fire destroys the twigs and branches of the mature plant, the root remains undamaged and is stimulated to send out sprouts. Eventually, after many years, these sprouts will resemble old growth. Some examples of stump sprouters on Catalina are the Island scrub oak, Catalina ironwood, toyon and Catalina cherry.

As resilient as Catalina’s native plants are, some human practices have made post-fire recovery difficult or, in some cases, impossible. The introduction of non-native herbivores and invasive plants has had a huge impact on when, or if, native plants will recover.  Deer, introduced in the early 1900s for hunting, prefer to forage on the young, tender leaves of seedlings and re-sprouts, particularly those of endemic plants. You may have heard us refer to them as “deer ice cream.” Eventually, the deer will deplete the root of all of its energy until it can no longer produce sprouts and the tree dies. That’s why after the Island Fire in 2007, the Conservancy constructed fence exclosures around rare and sensitive vegetation, allowing the habitat to recover without the pressure of browsing.

The introduction of non-native plants has contributed to an increase in the frequency and intensity of fires on Catalina Island. Flax-leaved broom, which is prominently seen in Descanso Canyon, is highly flammable due to the distribution of its leaves. They’re dense and dry enough to provide ample fuel, but distributed in a way that allows oxygen to enter and support continued burning.

Invasive, non-native grasses also make excellent kindling for wildfires. They’re dry, abundant, and ignite readily. These weedy grasses have filled in the gaps between sparse patches of vegetation. They have created a continuous fuel load that carries flames from patch to patch.


Preventing Wildfires on Catalina

THE ISLAND NATURALIST
Issue #16 / All About Fire


IN THIS ISSUE...


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






Photo by Carlos de la Rosa

Within the fence in the right side of the image, oaks could stump sprout without the pressure of deer browsing after the 2007 Island Fire. Outside the fence, at left, deer have nibbled off every sprout immediately after it penetrated the surface.






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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