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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Wildfires

Air Date: Week of

Stephanie O'Neill reports from Pasadena on the environmental aftermath of California's recent fires. The fires were bad news for at least two species of threatened birds living in the area. But in the long run, biologists assert that fire is a necessary part of the area's ecology.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Hundreds of people lost their homes and three people lost their lives to the wildfires that recently charred the hillsides around Los Angeles. Beyond the human tragedy, the infernos killed some endangered wildlife and leveled important habitat. But while there were many losses, naturalists say that over the long term, the fires also have a positive effect on the ecology of the area. From Los Angeles, Stephanie O'Neill reports.

(Sound of helicopter)

O'NEILL: The flames that roared through this once-quaint Pasadena neighborhood here at the base of the San Gabriel mountains were among the first of 14 fires that burned nearly 750 structures and 173,000 acres. Only ash-covered skeletons remain of the thick shrubbery and leafy trees that made Pasadena Glen an oasis, set back from LA's urban sprawl. Most of the cabin-like homes that abutted the steep mountain slopes are now piles of twisted, charred rubble. And for now, at least, the sound of birds is gone. In its place is the heavy drumming of fire department surveillance helicopters on patrol, and barking dogs tethered to the tents and RV's set up by residents who want to rebuild. Donald McMullen raced from work that day to watch the neighborhood he'd lived in all his life burn down.

McMULLEN: All you could see looking up here was just a wall of fire. It didn't matter who was here. There was no way to stop the house from burning. The winds were coming down so fast that if you go and look in these canyons, a lot of stuff isn't even burned off up maybe 20 feet in the air, a lot of the branches and stuff. It came right down the canyon and there was no stopping it.

O'NEILL: That was the case with most of the fires throughout the LA region. And when they weren't burning human homes, the flames, fueled by the notorious, hot and strong Santa Ana winds, devoured the dry hillsides - frightening away those animals who could escape and consuming everything that could not. But despite the massive losses of plants and animals, wildlife biologists and environmentalists say fire is essential to wildlands. Eldon Hughes is with the Sierra Club.

HUGHES: In the Santa Monicas, the plants are endangered, but all the plants evolved with fire. Some of those seeds must have fire in order to germinate. So a fire is not an ecological disaster by any means in the Santa Monica mountains. It can be a great human disaster, but it's not a disaster for the ecology.

O'NEILL: Some botanists are predicting that as the burned areas regrow, we can expect to see many more plant species than were there before. Hughes agrees, and says in some regions that hadn't burned for up to 30 years, the chaparral, which is a thick evergreen shrub common to Southern California, was so overgrown it prevented many other plants from taking root.

HUGHES: Now, whomp! That whole overstory is gone, you've laid down a bed of fertilizer in the form of the ash and all these plants come back. I think out in Orange County, the Tecate cypress - it's a small tree, it grows about 25 feet tall. Those cones never open unless there's a fire. Those cones drop to the ground and they rot, they're gone. A fire comes through and every cone opens and the next year, there'sTecate cypress coming up everywhere.

O'NEILL: But the post-fire assessment isn't all good news. Among the non-human victims who made headlines was the California gnatcatcher, a bird the Federal Government lists as threatened. US Fish and Wildlife officials estimate the fires killed or displaced 6 percent of the gnatcatcher population and 17 percent of the nation's coastal cactus wrens, a bird that's being considered for Federal protection. Again, Eldon Hughes.

HUGHES: The gnatcatcher obviously needs the coastal sage. The sage will come back. How do you balance fires when they're needed and not have this huge holocaust? And the answer is, burn it in small pieces, burn it at the right times of year, one, when it is wet and won't get away and also when the gnatcatcher isn't nesting so it can fly to the next available brush and not be in danger.

O'NEILL: But in the past five years, controlled-burn programs have been greatly restricted by air pollution officials. And whether that changes remains to be seen. Shortly after the fires, there were concerns that with the habitat for some protected species gone, much of the burned land here would be vulnerable to development. But Hughes says that won't happen.

HUGHES: The decisions are being made by the Fish and Wildlife Service. They're not fooled. That land is sage habitat. They know it burns, they know it will come back. And what you're trying to do there is end up with a habitat management plan that says we can build on certain parts if we keep the rest of it available to the gnatcatcher and I'm sure this is going to get counted in the bank, whether there are plants on it right now or not.

O'NEILL: While many of the Southern California blazes were set by an arsonist, fire is nevertheless part of the natural cycle, as are the resulting floods and mudslides. Rudy Lackner is a regional planning administrator for LA County. He says given these natural threats, people who build here need to understand the risks.

LACKNER: Because of the Santa Ana winds that are possible, the grading of the slopes that you have in part of the mountains around us, the potential for flood mudflow, I don't think I'd sleep very comfortably under certain, if I wasn't fully protected.

O'NEILL: But as the recent blazes proved, full protection from fire is impossible. Still, neighborhoods like Pasadena Glen continue to be among the most desirable precisely because of the thick trees and brush that attract wildlife, but can make such areas dangerous. People have been moving out to these neighborhoods for decades and residents, like many here, are aware of the natural dangers, but say it's worth it. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Los Angeles.



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