The Ash Tax
A look at the ecological impacts of the Big Sur wildfires.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Big Sur enthusiasts may be horrified to see the Indians and Basin Complex wildfires turn postcard-quality forests into black moonscapes. But scientists remind us that fire is a critical ingredient in Big Sur’s fire-adapted beauty.
“The fires are a problem because our buildings are out there,” says U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Kevin Cooper. “The plants and animals are going to be fine.”
Ecological challenges arise less from the flames than from human meddling– the introduction of a spore that turned millions of oak trees into kindling; the decades of fire suppression; the rush to extinguish the blazes with synthetic retardants.
As long as the wildfires are burning, their precise ecological impacts will be shrouded in smoke. But experts have a sense of how the flames will affect non-human life in Big Sur.CRITICAL HABITAT
Anyone traumatized by that tear-jerking scene,when the mother doe perishes in the forest inferno, might fret about the fauna of Los Padres National Forest. But many animals will survive the blaze.
“Usually not too many die outright from the fire,” Cooper says. “Far less than you’d think.”
Slow-moving ground animals such as wood rats and flightless insects could get trapped in the flames, Cooper says, but they’ll likely rebound quickly thanks to their fast reproductive rates. Animals that burrow or swim can often escape the heat, while others are able to fly or hightail it out of a smoking landscape. The refugees, however, may face stiffer competition in their new digs.
Resource advisers are keeping a close eye on threatened, endangered and sensitive species in the hot zones, including:
• Steelhead. The fires uncover sediments that will erode into streams with the winter rains, choking up the deep pools that serve as steelhead refuges during dry summer months. On the other hand, sedimentation can deposit gravel that makes for prime spawning habitat. As long as their ocean-faring kin remain healthy, river-dwelling steelhead stocks hurt by sedimentation should rebound over time. “If there’s any reason for concern, it’s because steelhead habitat has generally been diminished and we don’t have the same stocks that we used to,” Cooper says. “That puts the whole population somewhat in jeopardy.”
• Condors. Conservationists went to heroic lengths to rescue the birds sheltered in the Ventana Wildlife Society aviary (See story, below).
• Sea otters. The U.S. Forest Service is working with Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary staff to keep seawater-scooping choppers out of the threatened otters’ turf. “We’re steering clear of where there’s kelp,” Cooper says.
• Others. Cooper expects endangered red-legged frogs and western pond turtles, a species of concern, to wait out the fires in the cool of water. Sensitive California spotted owls can fly from the flames, but their nest-bound chicks may be trapped. Once they’re out of the hot zones, the displaced animals must deal with altered food supplies until their original habitats rebound.
• Native plants. As firefighters from across the state motor into the Ventana Wilderness, they can unwittingly transport invasive weeds and plant pathogens, warns USFS Resource Advisor Tom Murphey. Even a small deposit of yellow star thistle seed, or the spore that causes sudden oak death, can wildly alter an ecosystem. To minimize hitchhiking, fire crews wash their vehicles regularly.RETARDANT
The red stuff dumped from air tankers over the Ventana Wilderness is a mixture of ammonium compounds, gum thickener, corrosion inhibitor and a coloring agent that fades over time. As of June 30 fire crews had dumped about 800,000 gallons of a retardant called Phos-Chek D75-F on the Indians and Basin Complex fires, says Steve Crawford, captain at Cal Fire’s aerotech base in Paso Robles.
An accidental spill of the product could kill substantial numbers of fish and other stream-dwelling creatures, according to a February 2008 Forest Service document. “It has been shown to be detrimental to the fish population after so much gets in the water,” Crawford confirms.
The Forest Service requires fire crews to keep retardants at least 300 feet from waterways. “If there’s any doubt, we use helicopters with water,” Crawford says.
But accidents do happen. On June 12, fire crews spilled retardant into the Arroyo Seco River, Murphey says. Five days later he went to inspect the damage. “Everything was healthy, which kind of surprised me,” he says.
The fire retardant issue flared up in 2003, when an environmental group sued the Forest Service for failing to prepare an environmental impact report on their widespread use. The previous year, a retardant drop had killed tens of thousands of fish in central Oregon. A Montana judge agreed with the activists, ordering the agency to prepare an EIR on the use of fire retardants on wildfires. That report is still in the works, according to agency spokesman Gregg DeNitto.SUDDEN OAK DEATH
In 2006 the Weekly ran a cover story ominously headlined, “Big Sur Will Burn.” Wet winters, dry summers and a spore that ravages oak trees “are bound to fuel an inferno,” Mark C. Anderson wrote. “The only question is when. ”
The answer appears to be now.
Few know sudden oak death better than Dave Rizzo, a UC Davis plant pathology professor who has been studying the blight since 2000. The invasive fungus-like pathogen has killed millions of oaks throughout Big Sur, particularly in Partington and Palo Colorado canyons.
“Big Sur was ripe to burn even if sudden oak death never came,” Rizzo says. “But with all these dead trees, the fires are burning hotter and longer.”
Los Padres fuel chief Steve Davis says the SOD-killed oaks are complicating the already catastrophic fires. “It is causing major problems, as we predicted,” he says.
The dry, dead trees blaze hot and long, contributing to the fires’ spread and making them harder to put out. When SOD is present at the fire’s edge, firefighters must use up to 10 times more water to control the blaze, Davis says. If diseased oaks are still standing when the flame blazes through, they can act as ladder fuels, carrying flames up to the crowns of otherwise fire-resistant redwoods and pines.
Within 30 minutes of catching fire, most of the diseased oaks fall down, endangering firefighters. “Falling trees are to wildland fires like collapsed buildings are to urban fires,” Davis says. “It’s a huge safety issue.”
Even if they don’t ignite redwoods, fiery oaks can damage the giant trees’ roots, bark and crown cover, making them more likely to die and topple later. Davis estimates SOD will cause 10 percent more redwood deaths than if it wasn’t a factor in the blaze.
Because SOD is a fairly new pathogen, scientists see a scientific opportunity in the carnage. Rizzo and his team have been monitoring 280 SOD-afflicted forest plots throughout Big Sur, providing preliminary data that will allow experts to assess how fire affects the spread of the pathogen. “This is the first real major fire in an area with sudden oak death,” Rizzo says. “Maybe this can inform our priorities and goals in areas with sudden oak death that haven’t burned yet. If we don’t learn from this, it would be a shame.”
For Rizzo and Davis, who for years have been warning about the hazardous confluence of SOD and ever-drier weather conditions, the Big Sur fires are an explosive I-told-ya-so.
Davis and his colleagues were in the midst of planning a project that would have allowed for controlled burns and fire breaks, among other fire-control methods, when the funding was pulled in April 2007– a twist Davis recalls with some bitterness.
But while preventive measures may have slowed the spread of flames, both Davis and Rizzo agree that little could have stopped Big Sur from catching fire this summer.
“This is what we had been scared about, and unfortunately it’s come to pass,” Rizzo says. “The scary part is, we still have four more months of fire season.”REGENERATION
Fire has burned through Big Sur roughly a half-dozen times in the past century, playing an integral role in the diverse landscape. The heat helps certain seeds germinate, ashes lay a nutrient-rich foundation for regeneration, and new gaps in the forest canopy offer sunlight to aspiring seedlings.
In the bigger picture, global climate change could be transitioning Big Sur’s forests into chaparral and grasslands. “It seems like we’re getting hotter fires more frequently,” Cooper says. “This is kind of a long-term ecological question, but we may be changing habitats over the long run.”
While some species will take hits, others will thrive on the early successional conditions created by the fire. “There are winners and losers, but it’ll all be inhabitable eventually,” Cooper says. “It’s not going to be a giant scorched-earth kind of place.”
The rewards may be slow in coming, Rizzo adds. “In the short term, it might not look very good.”