Saturday, July 12, 2008

Fires in California devastate wildlife, sensitive habitats

David Sneed in San Luis (California): Kelly Sorenson, executive director of Ventana Wildlife Society, evaluates the destruction of the condor release pen at the site of the Basin Complex Fire in Big Sur. With 1,781 fires burning across the state, this summer is shaping up to be one of the worst wildfire seasons on record in California.

Biologists and land managers say these fires do more than blacken hillsides and threaten homes. They also kill wildlife and destroy habitat that can take years to recover. Fire is a natural part of California’s ecosystems, and wildlife has evolved strategies to deal with it. However, many of the wildfires that burn nowadays grow so big and are so hot that animals cannot escape them, said Terry Palmisano, a senior wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Game.

“Fire can be good; it’s not all bad,” she said. “But we have changed the fire regime. Now, when these fires come through, they are massive fires.” Already this season, more than 688,000 acres have burned statewide, with about 165,000 acres blackened just by two huge fires in Monterey County. Much of the charred acreage is prime wildlife habitat.

Large, fast-moving fires can confuse and overwhelm even birds and fleet-footed animals. …“In the case of catastrophic wildfire,” he said, “animals may be killed directly or must move into adjacent habitat where their chances of making a living are reduced.”

Hot, intense fires do more than kill and displace wildlife. They also strip the land of vegetation, increase the likelihood of erosion and sterilize the soil. Some fires are so hot that the top layer of soil can fuse into a glass-like crust. This increases by years the time the land needs to regenerate.

This contrasts sharply with the mild, even beneficial, effects that small, cooler fires have on wildlife. …Small wildfires prune plants, rather than consume them, and release nutrients into the soil that promote regrowth. They also leave small pockets of unburned areas where smaller animals can take refuge.

….Managing these large fires is becoming increasingly challenging for resource agencies that now must take climate change into consideration. They must protect human life and property but also attempt to reduce the fire danger using prescribed burning and other techniques….

Charred forest following a fire in the North Cascades, Washington. Ground vegetation is just beginning to return. Originally uploaded to the English Project by Bcasterline, Wikimedia Commons

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