A doe and fawn at UC’s Hopland Research and Extension Center in July 2020. UC Berkeley photo courtesy of Brashares Lab
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CaliforniaIt is Mendocino complex firewhich began in July 2018, consisted of two Forest fires: the Ranch Fire and the River Fire. The Ranch Fire affected more than 410,000 acres, while the River Fire affected about 48,900 acres, according to the US Bureau of Land Management.
The huge wildfire spread rapidly and burned for more than five months, destroying, among other things, the University of California Hopland Research and Extension Center (HREC), a multidisciplinary education and research center just south of Ukiah on the Russian River, according to a Berkeley News press release.
“It felt like something out of Lord of the Rings – like Mordor. It was hard to imagine many surviving,” Justin Brashares, professor of environmental science, politics and management at the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), said in the press release.
The good news is that, just months after the fire, the animals that called the ravaged northern California habitat on either side of Clear Lake, including gray foxes, coyotes and black-tailed hares – have been spotted by motion-triggered camera traps.
“We were surprised that many species appeared to be resistant (to fire impacts),” Kendall Calhoun, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and member of the Brashares lab, said in the press release.
In order to get a sense of the impact of the massive fire on small and medium-sized animals living on HREC’s 5,300 acres, Calhoun and a team of researchers reviewed more than half a million photographed grid images that had been taken before and after the Mendocino Complex fire.
THE study“Mammalian resistance to megafire in western US woodland savannas,” was published in the journal Ecosphere.
The study was one of the first to analyze wildlife sightings before and after a mega-fire. It was also one of the few studies to look specifically at how megafires affect the state’s oak forests. These types of ecosystems cover much of the state, but have not been sufficiently represented in research related to wildfires compared to the conifers of the Sierra Nevada forests.
“For the vast majority of Californians, these oak forests and grassy savannahs are what we consider our state’s signature biome or ecosystem type,” Brashares said in the press release. “It is the main type of ecosystem for livestock pastureand it is also the main type of habitat used to grow grapes for wine. It is a type of critical ecosystem, and it is worth managing it well.
The researchers studied eight animal species and found that six of them were “resistant” to fire impacts. These animals – raccoon, gray fox, black-tailed hare, coyote, bobcat and striped skunk – used the area affected by the fire as often and in the same way as before. Two species, the black-tailed deer and the western gray squirrel, seemed more susceptible to the consequences of the fire.
Camera trap photos showed many animals taking refuge in small patches of TREE cover – in some cases more frequently than before the fire – and researchers believed that the remaining canopy gave these species the food and resources they needed to stay.
“Megafire had a negative effect on the detection of some mammalian species, but overall most species showed high resistance to disturbance and returned to levels of detection and site use comparable to unburned sites by the end of the study period. After the megafire, species richness was higher in burned areas that retained higher canopy cover compared to unburned and burned sites with low canopy cover. Fire management that prevents large-scale canopy loss is critical to providing refuge for vulnerable species immediately following fire in oak forests and likely other mixedwood forest landscapes,” the researchers wrote in the study.
The camera traps also took pictures of apex predators like mountain lions and black bears which have home ranges often much larger than the lands composing the HREC, so that a precise idea of their distribution was not possible from the study area.
However, Calhoun said larger animals weren’t seen as often after the fire, indicating they weren’t as quick to revisit megafire-affected habitat.
According to the press release, the results of the study underscore the importance of prescribed burning and grazing in reducing the intensity of wildfires, as forest cover is more likely to be intact after less severe fires.
“Even this incredibly hot and devastating fire still managed to leave behind these small patches of unburned areas, and we were surprised at how quickly many species were able to move into these habitat patches and then spread into the burned areas as they recovered,” Brashares said in the press release. “This discovery is very valuable for forest management because we can do things on the landscape that will increase the chances that when a fire starts it will leave behind some of these fragments.”