Published by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority
SYMBIOSIS A Quarterly Newsletter for Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority Volunteers Brought to you through the generous support of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy
We live between Wildfires
Fall is traditionally the time of greatest wildfire danger in Southern California. For thousands of years, wildfires have played a complex role in shaping our local Mediterranean ecosystem. Wildfires are also a threat to urban development as we continue to build in formerly open areas. In a very real sense, both in time and place, we live between wildfires.
This issue of Symbiosis is intended to give the reader a quick introduction to wildland fires from the perspective of one land management agency, the MRCA. We are responsible for helping protect parks Inside this issue…. 1 2 2 3 4 5 6 8 9 10 11 12 14 15 16
Feature Story From the Editor Greetings from the MRCA Feature cont. We prepare for the fire How I can prepare We respond to the fire A Fire Volunteer’s story Key ideas about wildfires Earth, Wind, and Fire Red Flag Days Fire Ecology Days after Fire Years after Fire Photo Gallery
On the fire line. Photo by Matthew B. Wilken
and open space throughout the Los Angeles area and much of this land is located in the wildland/urban interface.
Beginning firefighters are introduced to the concept of the “Fire Triangle.” Fire needs three things in order to burn: fuel, oxygen and heat. Remove any one of these and the fire won’t burn.
We can use this triangle metaphor to describe more than just fire behavior. We can describe how the MRCA deals with wildfires: prepare, respond, and restore. We prepare for a wildfire by clearing brush, training our (continued on page 3)
From the Editor…..
“Be‐beep, Be‐beep, Be‐beep.” The sound from my pager was designed to catch my attention; it works as it was designed. I stop whatever it is I’m doing (like cooking dinner) and check the text display. Most of the time, it says something like, “Fire in the area of xxx, Ranger xxx is in route for a size up.” Then I simply wait for the follow‐up page saying, “No agency property involved. No personnel are required.” But sometimes the text is more ominous: “Brush fire reported at xx. All staff report status to Franklin EOC (Emergency Operations Center).” Simultaneously with my pager, 60 pagers are going off all over the LA basin. The Franklin EOC erupts in a flurry of activity, with everyone calling in to report their availability and to receive their assignments. Ranger trucks, communications and fire equipment converge on the staging area. Some people head off to other locations to backfill for those called to fire duty. And so it begins.
line. The man you saw cutting brush along the road can later be found spraying fire retardant on a building lying in the path of oncoming flames. The woman who ever‐so‐ politely takes your reservation for an event can later be found barking out instructions in the noisy EOC. Even a gray‐haired, middle‐aged woman like me has driven into a blackened, smoldering canyon with needed supplies. Every close‐knit group develops its own jargon and our agency is no different. One of my personal MRCA favorites is “I’m on it.” I think that phrase expresses our commitment to each other and, more importantly, to protecting the land that has been entrusted to our care. And to the residents of the City of Santa Clarita, let me say “thank you.” In the last edition of Symbiosis, we discussed the ecological reasons to preserve the greenbelt between the Santa Clarita and the San Fernando Valleys. In July, Santa Clarita voters approved the creation of an Open Space Preservation district by a vote of 69%.
Because we’re a relatively small government agency, everyone has a variety of roles and we’re crossed trained to cover for each other. What some of us do might surprise you. The Ranger who was advising you which trail to take can later be found directing bulldozers where to cut the fire
Greetings from the MRCA…..
Wendy Langhans 310‐858‐7272 x115 Wendy.email@example.com
Recently the news has been full of stories about the massive wildfires in Greece. To date, 64 people have been killed, whole villages have been razed and over half a million acres have been charred. And it’s not over yet.
But we cannot afford to be complacent. In California, there are areas where it is not safe to build. And any development in the wildland/urban interface needs adequate buffer zones and evacuation routes.
According to a recent article by Tracy Wilkinson in the Los Angeles Times, some of those fires may not have been accidental. “Greece is the only country in the European Union that does not have a forest registry. Once a forest burns down, the legal status of the land also goes up in smoke…and it is often up for grabs. In some cases, developers have moved in with the help of corrupt officials.”
Take, for example, the development proposed for Lyon’s Canyon in Santa Clarita. Earlier this week a car sparked a small brushfire along The Old Road which was quickly put out. But what if that canyon were full of homes, with only one road in and, more importantly, one road out? What if, instead of a humid day with light winds, a strong Santa Ana wind was blowing? Under those conditions, even a nearby fire station would probably not be enough to keep the fire from spreading.
Here in California, we are all too familiar with the powerful destructive effects of wildfires. But we also have an historic tradition of natural resource conservation, beginning in the 19th century with the work of people like John Muir. No city, county or state parks? No national forests or recreation areas? What would California be without them? Page 2
No, we cannot afford to be complacent.
Michael D. “Mike” Berger, Chair Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority
We Live Between Wildfires (continued from page 1) ….. people, maintaining equipment, and educating the public. On pages 4 and 5, we provide more details about our year‐ round preparations. We respond to a wildfire by protecting people, endangered habitats and structures. On pages 6 and 7, we provide more details about how we go about fighting fires. We restore public access by removing hazards, repairing trails and educating the public about fire ecology. We restore habitats by allowing nature to take its course and assisting when it is prudent to do so. On pages 14 and 15, we provide more details about what to expect following a wildfire.
As an alternative to loss, we write about fire ecology and how wildfires create their own conditions for renewal. We have also included a hopeful story about one of our fire volunteers. And by opening a window into our natural world, we carry out our mission of public access and also help educate the public before for the next wildfire occurs. After all, in Southern California, we live between wildfires.
The Basic Fire Triangle
This issue of Symbiosis has a practical purpose as well: it is designed to provide you with background information about the things you read in the papers and on the internet or hear on radio or TV.
Do you want to know how a Red Flag Day is determined (see page 11)?
Do you want to understand the difference between a Santa Ana wind and an on‐shore breeze and how winds impact a wildfire (see pages 10 and 11)?
I would like to thank the following people for the use of their photographs:
Kenn Hughes Ken Nelson David Updike Paul Levine Jim Nowatzki Matthew B. Wilken
Do you want to understand the different types of wildfires and the role topography plays in fire behavior (see page 9)?
Do you want to know what you can do to prepare for a wildfire and where to you can go to get more practical information (see page 5)? Someday that information could save your home or even your life.
Do you want to understand a few basic principles of fire ecology (see pages 12 and 13)?
Every naturalist interpreter is trained to know that we make emotional as well as intellectual connections. We cannot write about wildfires without acknowledging the emotional feelings of helplessness and loss. These feeling are real, but they are not the only reality. We give you knowledge of what you can do to prepare as an alternative to helplessness.
A Greener Symbiosis
You may have noticed that this edition of Symbiosis looks different than previous editions. That is because we are working with a new printer to improve our environmental stewardship practices.
We’re using FCS Certified Paper. The Forest Stewardship Council is an international organization committed to social and environmental standards for forest management practices.
We’re using soy‐based ink instead of petroleum‐based ink, which means less airborne release of volatile organic compounds.
We’re using waterless offset printing, which eliminates the production of chemically‐tainted waste water. Page 3
We Prepare for the Fire before we see the Smoke….. Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower
A successful response to a wildland fire starts with the preparations we make throughout the year. The people of the MRCA maintain our readiness in several ways.
We “brush” the land
In our Southern California Mediterranean‐type ecosystem, vegetation dries out during our hot and dry summer months, and dead vegetation decomposes slowly. Firefighters have a term for this accumulation of dead and dry vegetation — fuel—and it burns fast and hot. Our goal is to prevent this hazardous fuel from accumulating in areas adjacent to private property.
The MRCA Vegetation Management program uses a combination of chemical application and hand labor to ensure public safety from wildfires. During the peak season we employ 100 workers per day, at an average cost of $1250 per acre, or $1.5 million per year.
Ranger Francine Godoy at a 2007 training exercise at King Gillette Ranch.
All our Rangers and some additional MRCA employees are federally certified wildland fire fighters and are trained to the same standards used by the US Forest Service. Besides S190 (Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior) and S130 (Basic Firefighter) our people take specialized classes and are annually tested to maintain their ratings. For example, to become a squad boss, 8 of our people had to take 48 hours of additional training to meet Federal certification standards.
But training is not limited to our firefighters. Operations personnel in the field have to be fed and supplies delivered. That’s the job of logistics, one of the staff positions in the Incident Command System. You don’t have to be able to fight fires in order to deliver food to the base camp. An MRCA employee from Facilities and But you do have to Maintenance clearing space along a roadway. know a few things, like how to check We spray for two reasons: (1) to prevent growth before it in (and out) at the starts, and (2) to provide an efficient, flexible and cost‐ EOC, so that we effective alternative to labor‐intensive brushing. know where you We have two types of spraying programs. The ʺpre‐ are in case we emergent” program prevents seed germination and is need to re‐direct applied early in the season. The ʺpost‐emergentʺ program is you. designed to knock down growth in areas that were previously missed and is applied later in the season. Ranger Laura Just at a 2007 training exercise at King Gillette Ranch. We train our employees Page 4
How Can I Prepare?
We Prepare our Equipment
Sometimes slip‐on’s are not a pair of shoes, water buffalos are not domesticated bovines from Asia, and air foam does not come from behind the counter at Starbucks.
The MRCA has eleven slip‐on’s, which are self‐contained units that can quickly convert a Ranger’s truck into a piece of fire‐fighting equipment. They hold 200 gallons of water. We also have two 400‐gallon water buffalo’s, which bring water to a fire or wherever else it is needed. And we just put into service two state‐of‐the art CAF (compressed air foam) units.
All this is in addition to the four fire engines, water tender, mobile command post, mobile repeater and other assorted equipment. We even have camping gear. This equipment is pre‐staged in various locations throughout our parks and open spaces and is maintained in working order.
We document our resources in a “Red Book”, an emergency manual located at each park, that provides evacuation information for our tenants and visitors, as well as details like where the water main is located. Repairs, improvements, testing, and increasing the knowledge base and skill level of our people ‐ these are the sorts of activities that take place year round.
Ranger Fernando Gomez monitors the water pump during the 2003 Simi Fire.
Gather information before you buy, build or rent. As realtors are fond of saying, it’s “location, location, location!” When looking for a place where you and your family will live, ask the realtor these questions. Are we in the wildland/urban interface? Just because the house is in the middle of a subdivision does not make it an urban area. What is the topography of the area? A ridgeline may have a good view and a box canyon may seem secluded, but fire behavior is influenced by topography. See page 9 for more information. What are the evacuation routes? A winding narrow road, packed with cars, is not the safest option. Have an Evacuation Plan. For details see http:// fire.lacounty.gov/SafetyPreparedness/PDFs/Operation% 20Evacuation.pdf. Complete brush clearance. For 2007 in LA County the deadline was April 1 (Lancaster area), June 1 (Coastal areas) and May 1 (all other areas). For details see http:// fire.lacounty.gov/PressRoom/PDFs/Brush%20Clearance% 20Tips.pdf. Use appropriate building materials. Here’s a fact sheet from the California Department of forestry and fire prevention. http://www.fire.ca.gov/wildland_content/ downloads/BSR_fact_sheet.pdf. Design your landscape to be fire resistant. For details see http://firecenter.berkeley.edu/docs/ CE_homelandscaping.pdf. UC cooperative extension offers information and classes. For details see http:// celosangeles.ucdavis.edu/Natural_Resources/ Wildland_Fire.htm. Consider signing up for a free 20‐ hour CERT class (Community Emergency Response Training). For details see http://fire.lacounty.gov/ProgramsEvents/PECERT.asp.
The MRCA Responds to Fire ….. When a major wildfire occurs, the MRCA shifts into an Incident Command System (ICS) style of management. ICS began in California during the 1970’s in response to several catastrophic wildfires and has become the standard nationwide model.
Our Resources are Mobilized.
When a wildfire is reported, a Ranger is dispatched to the scene for a “size up”. Depending on the results of that assessment, additional resources are mobilized. The Ranger on the scene becomes the de‐facto Incident Commander (IC) until relieved by a more Jamie Cabral checking in qualified staff member. A personnel at Franklin EOC. page goes out to our personnel to report their availability to the Emergency Operations Center at Franklin Canyon.
We gather at the Staging Area.
Our equipment is pre‐deployed at various locations throughout our parkland. Now this equipment is transported to a staging area near the fire. Our firefighters gather there as well to await assignment by the IC.
We are given our Assignments.
Our personnel are deployed in various ways, depending on their training and expertise. Let’s start with some of the supporting roles and then go on to describe the work of the people out on the fireline.
Public Information Officer. This person does not directly serve at the fire scene but keeps the public informed of the status of our parkland and our firefighters efforts.
Logistics. Responsible for providing the firefighters with the resources they need such as food, heavy equipment, and porta‐potties. The operate the EOC and arrange substitute staffing coverage for employees called to the fire.
Firefighters burn a lot of calories. Keeping them fed is one of the jobs of Logistics. •
Safety Officer. Responsible for the safety of all personnel. This person ensures that the firefighters are getting rest, that there are no on‐sight hazards, and that the people have the training to do what they are assigned to do.
Operations. These are the people who fight the fire. Our firefighters are organized into squads or units or of 3‐7 people, with each person reporting to only one supervisor. This is in keeping with the IC concepts of “span of control” and “unity of command”.
Liaison Officer. This person is assigned to the Multi‐ Agency Task force and their role is to protect our ecologically sensitive areas. For example, in the Topanga Fire of 2005, our Liaison Officer identified the endangered red‐legged frog habitat so that the bulldozers did not damage it while creating a firebreak.
Finance Officer. While not directly serving at the fire scene, this person plays an important role in making sure that the agency is reimbursed for expenses related to the emergency and also serves as a liaison with FEMA and OES.
Squads of 3 ‐ 7 people maintain a manageable span of control.
Firefighting activities are managed by using an Incident Action Plan (IAP). Using the principles of Management by Objective, the plan is designed to achieve measurable, tactical objectives while keeping in mind the three goals of safety, incident stabilization, and property protection. The IAP is designed to ask four questions: A roadway serves as a man‐made firebreak. What do we want to do? Who is responsible for doing it? How do we communicate with each other? What do we do if? Structure Protection. We mop up and de‐mobilize. When the fire is over, our Proper gear is one of the ways we maintain work is not finished. There’s at least several days of mopping the safety of our firefighters. up hot spots, cleaning and putting away equipment, and assessing the burned area for hazards. Then we get some rest There are a number of tactics that firefighters use. Here are and resume our other activities. some examples. We consider what lessons can be learned. The final activity is to review what worked, what didn’t work, and what corrective actions need to take place before the next fire. Because that’s one thing we know for sure ‐ there will be a next fire. The job isn’t complete until the Laying out hoses and setting up the pumps. mopping up is finished. We fight the wildfire.
One MRCA Fire Volunteer’s Story ….. For the past four years, the MRCA has offered a Fire Volunteer program for people interested in a career in emergency services. The program currently has 12 members, who meet every Sunday for a 10‐12 hour training day. If you are interested in learning more about the program, please contact Ranger Dave Updike at firstname.lastname@example.org or Jon Gustafson at Jon_Gustafson@adp.com.
was surprised at just how useful my training was. I knew how to locate a safe zone to park our equipment. I knew how to lay out the hoses properly in order to protect the structures from the approaching fire. And all those sweaty miles of hiking – wearing gear and carrying a heavy pack – prepared me physically for the task at hand.
Other opportunities came my way as well, including a split seasonal position with the MRCA and California State Parks as a firefighter/park aid. In April, 2007, I helped at a clean‐up at Ballona wetlands, where I learned that the MRCA was Growing up, I always wanted to be a firefighter. So in April sponsoring a youth baseball team, named appropriately 2005, when a high school friend told me about the MRCA’s enough, “The Rangers”. I wound up helping as an assistant volunteer fire program, I wasted no time attending an coach and I had a blast. The kids were great, even when I had orientation to learn more. Ranger Dave Updike said it was them run laps around the baseball field. great stepping stone for entrance into a career in emergency Now I work for Pepperdine University in a job that combines services. He was right, in more ways than he knew. firefighting, emergency medical services, and law Training began on Sunday morning at 6 AM at Towsley enforcement. Just as Dave predicted, my volunteer work for Canyon. I made a point to get there early at 5:45 AM, but the MRCA was an entrance into a career in emergency people were already “gearing up” for a hike. One of the guys services. handed me some Nomex fire gear, a helmet and a hose pack that must have weighed 40 pounds. I felt very nervous, like But volunteering did more for me than just that. I grew as a the new kid at school. person. I learned valuable life skills – both small and big. I learned how to properly hold a wrench without breaking my At six sharp we headed up the canyon, through the knuckles. I learned how friends can help you get through “narrows” and up the 1000 feet of switchbacks. “What in the hard times. I learned how self respect is more valuable when world did I get myself into?”, I thought. “It’s hot, I’m wearing it is earned. And I want to take this opportunity to say thanks two layers of clothes and I’m carrying a fire hose pack and to everyone who’s helped me, especially the MRCA Rangers. shovel.” Even so, we kept hiking. After about four miles, we You played a big part in the career I’ve chosen and the person reached the canyon floor and took a break to drink some I am becoming. water while Dave taught us about fire weather. Then he had us SPRINT the last mile back to the Ranger Station, where later we learned the right way to sharpen our fire tools, roll a fire hose and clean a fire truck. It was an absolutely amazing day; I knew I had found my place.
Over the past 2‐1/2 years, volunteer Matt Hicks has volunteered over 5000 hours as a Fire Volunteer. This is his story:
From then on I volunteered for the fire program on my days off from work and school. Besides the local MRCA training I received, I was able to attend the MRCA’s wildland fire academy and fire and rescue training classes with California State Parks, the National Park Service and LA County Fire. I even trained on prescribed burns. All this training paid off in October, when our volunteer fire crew joined the agency fire crews in battling the Topanga Fire. We helped protect structures at Sage Ranch and Upper Las Virgenes Canyon. I Page 8
Matt Hicks in a structure protection training exercise.
A Few Key Ideas About Fire….. Types of Fires •
Lay of the Land
Ground Fires burn in natural litter, duff, roots or sometimes highly organic soils. Once started they are highly difficult to detect and control. Fires may also rekindle.
Topography has an influence on fire behavior. •
Aspect is the direction that the slope faces. North and northeastern facing slopes generally have less exposure to the sun and are therefore cooler, with higher humidity, heavier fuel and higher fuel moisture. South and southwest slopes have greater exposure to the sun and are therefore warmer, with lower humidity, and lighter and dryer fuels.
Slope is the degree of incline. Fire burns uphill faster than downhill. Because the heat rises and preheats the fuel, the steeper the slope, the faster the fire burns. Also, pieces of burning fuel can roll downhill, igniting new fires.
Elevation is the height above sea level. Fuel at lower elevations dries out earlier in the year. As the elevation increases, the type of fuel changes, similar to what we find when we hike above the tree line.
The shape of the mountains and canyons is also significant. A fire at the base of a box or narrow canyon acts like a chimney and spotting occurs more easily in narrow canyons. This is a dangerous place to be trapped.
Surface Fires burn in grasses and low shrubs (up to 4’ tall) or in the lower branches of trees. Surface fire may move rapidly. Ease of control depends upon the fuel involved.
Crown Fires burn in the tops of trees. Once started, they are very difficult to control since wind plays an important role in crown fires.
Spotting can be produced by crown fires as well as wind and topography conditions. Large burning embers are thrown ahead of the main fire. Once spotting begins, the fire will be very difficult to control.
In wider canyons, wind direction can be changed by the direction of the canyon. There is a general difference between the north and south aspects and spotting does not occur except in high winds. Fires burning along lateral ridges may change direction when the ridge drops off into a canyon, because of a change in air flow. Fires burning along mountain saddles may increase in intensity, due to the channeling of wind through the saddle leading to increased wind speed.
Adapted from NOAA
There are natural and man‐made barriers to the spread of fire. Rivers, lakes and rock slides serve as natural barriers while roads, reservoirs, and firelines are man‐ made.
Adapted from S‐190, Intro to Wildland Fire Behavior Page 9
Earth, Wind and Fire….. Santa Ana winds begin in the arid Great Basin of Nevada and Utah and flow westward through our local mountain ranges towards the Pacific Ocean. It’s common knowledge that when the Santa Ana winds are blowing, the risk of a wildfire is greatest. But do we know why? And are there other common wind patterns that affect fire behavior? For the firefighters on the ground, knowledge of local wind patterns and conditions are essential for suppressing the fire and for their own personal safety. Let’s take a brief look at some local wind patterns and their affect on wildfires.
exact same thing happens in our atmosphere. When the earth’s surface is cold, it causes the air above to become denser and heavier, as though someone was sitting on top of the atmosphere. This creates an increase in pressure, forcing the air to move to an area where the air is warmer and the pressure is lower. Wind from a high pressure will spiral outwards in a clockwise direction (in the northern hemisphere). Wind entering a low pressure will spiral inwards in a counter clockwise direction.
How do winds affect fire? Predicting fire behavior is as much an art as a science. But there are a few simple ideas to keep in mind when considering how winds affect fire behavior.
Winds supply oxygen to the fire.
Winds preheat the fuel in the path of the fire by pushing the flames and radiant heat closer to the fuel. Warm fuel ignites and burns faster because less energy is required to bring it to ignition temperature.
Dry winds tend to remove moisture from the brush due to evaporation. Dry fuels also ignite and burn faster.
A “crown fire” in the treetops.
Hot air rises, so fires burn uphill.
When flames “crown” into the treetops, wind will drive the flames to the next tree.
Winds drive flames across barriers that would normally stop a fire and carry sparks ahead of the main fire, causing “spot” fires to occur.
General winds – pressure gradient winds. Air has properties very similar to that of a liquid. It undergoes convection (movement of currents within liquids), and can flow either by the pull of gravity or by a pressure gradient. Our local weather patterns are formed by the lowest layer of our atmosphere, the troposphere, and is trapped bellow the next highest layer of atmosphere, the stratosphere. Because the troposphere cannot mix easily with the surface of the Earth nor the stratosphere, it acts somewhat like a giant water bed mattress encircling the planet.
Most weather patterns are the products of pressure gradients in the troposphere. When you sit on a water bed, the area where you sit undergoes an increase in pressure, and the water moves away to an area of lower pressure. The Page 10
Local winds – “on‐shore” and “off‐shore” breezes. Because water gains and loses heat slowly, it maintains a relatively constant temperature throughout the day. But dry land gains and loses heat more quickly. Most evenings, the ocean surface will be a warmer than the land. The ocean becomes an area of low pressure and the land an area of high pressure, so the wind flows from the land to the ocean, creating an “off‐shore breeze” of 3 ‐ 10 mph. During the day, the sun heats up the land and it becomes warmer than the ocean. Now the land becomes the area of low pressure and the ocean an area of high pressure. The cool wind flows from the ocean back onto the land, creating an “on‐shore” breeze of 10 ‐ 20 mph.
Local winds – “slope winds.” These winds occur in the mountains, because of a heating differential between different slopes, due to aspect and surface composition. During the daytime, warm air rises and creates upslope winds of about 3 ‐ 8 mph, which are strongest on south‐ facing slopes and in the mid afternoon. During the
A Few Key Ideas About Fire Ecology….. Wildfires create the conditions for renewal. Think about the conditions within a solar greenhouse: warmer temperatures, plenty of fertilizer, and protection from pests and diseases. All you need to add is water from the winter rains. •
Fire releases nutrients into the soil. In our local Mediterranean ecosystem, rainfall is seasonal and plants decompose slowly. Fire rapidly breaks down dead plant material into ash and releases the nutrients into the soil.
Fire removes the canopy of leaves. When the
Gophers churn the soil, mixing it with nutrient‐enriched ash.
shady canopy of leaves is removed, more sunlight reaches the soil. •
Ash acts as a solar collector. The dark color of the ash absorbs solar heat, making the soil warmer and accelerating the growth of new seedlings.
Fire is a disinfectant and insecticide. Certain plant diseases and damaging insects are destroyed by fire.
No leaves means more sunlight reaches the ground.
This ground dwelling stinkbug is a bit worse for wear but somehow managed to survive. Many other insects are not as fortunate.
The ash surrounding this lupine absorbs solar heat, keeping the ground warmer.
Our plants and animals have evolved ways to protect themselves from wildfires and some even require fire in order to reproduce.
Soil acts as insulation. Wildflowers that grow from underground bulbs generally survive a wildfire. Also, new shoots sprout from the underground roots of old plants.
Bark acts as insulation. Some plants, especially
Wild Cucumbers grow from underground tubers.
oaks, sprout from their trunks.
Some animals escape by running away or hiding underground. Other animals return when there is lush new growth to feed them.
Some plants require fire in order to reproduce. Certain seeds require heat, chemicals from smoke or nitrogen from the ash in order germinate. Once they grow to maturity and distribute their seeds, those seeds lie dormant for years until the next wildfire.
New sprouts on a Coast Live Oak Tree.
Yellow‐throated phacelia is an endemic fire follower that requires fire in order to germinate.
This gopher survived to dig again.
In the Days and Weeks Following a Wildfire….. It’s human nature to be curious. We all know that. The MRCA is committed to maintaining public access, but there are good reasons why an area is closed after a wildfire. Certain things need to occur before it is safe to re‐open.
We need to make sure the fire is out. “Hot spots” often remain in the leaf litter or in the brush and can flare up again. The fire isn’t over until every ember within 100‐300 feet of the fire line is extinguished.
We need to scope out the area for hazards. Did you know that a tree trunk or underground root can smolder for up to 3 weeks after a fire? Suppose a large tree branch was overhanging a hiking trail, waiting for just the right amount of wind to fall. Or suppose that a hiking trail passes over a smoldering tree root that’s ready to give way. We need time to identify and fix any hazards we find.
MRCA Interpretive naturalist Wendy Langhans leads a Fire Ecology Program at Towsley Canyon.
The surviving animals need time to relocate. After a fire, there is little cover remaining and little left to eat unless you’re a scavenger. The animals are spooked enough as it is without our adding to it. Do we want the animals to spend their limited energy reserves fleeing from us?
• The dead animals need time to decompose, be eaten by scavengers or removed from within sight from the trails. Remember the trauma for children when Bambi’s mother died in the classic Disney movie, “Bambi”?
Once the park has been deemed safe to reopen, there are certain things you can do to allow renewal to occur.
Stay on the trail. Southern California habitats have evolved in response to periodic wildfires. When you walk in to a burned area, especially when you go “off trail”, you and your dog can track in seeds from your yard, especially non‐native seeds.
• Resist the urge to “help”. Except when necessary to prevent erosion, it’s not a wise idea to scatter seeds. As well as being against park rules, the underlying reason is that the seedlings may compete with native plants and hinder their growth and reproduction. For certain endemic fire followers, they only have one season to grow and set their seed. It is also against park rules to feed the animals. Providing food is not the same as providing a sustainable habitat and will only encourage the surviving animals to become habituated to humans. Please be aware that we will issue citations for these activities, which is something we would rather not to do.
Later, MRCA Interpretive Naturalists will lead Fire Ecology hikes in the burn zone. If you are on our e‐mail distribution list for programs, you will be notified when these hikes occur. Check our website (www.LAMountains.com) for hike schedules. To be added to our distribution list, contact email@example.com or call 310‐858‐7272 x 117. There’s not much cover left for the surviving animals to hide . Page 14
Joining us on a guided hike will give you an chance to satisfy your curiosity in a safe and constructive way.
In the Years Following a Wildfire….. Assume a common scenario ‐ a late summer wildfire in a park or open space. How long does it take for the land to recover? a) 1 year, b) 10 years, c) 25 years, or d) it depends?
The correct answer is d) it depends. Which habitat are we talking about: chaparral, coastal sage scrub, oak woodlands or a mixture ? Then there are other factors such as the amount of time between fires, intensity, soil composition, aspect (direction), elevation and steepness of slope. All these factors will have an affect on post‐fire recovery. Even so, we can speak in general terms about what we anticipate will happen and when it will occur.
To better understand how post‐fire recovery takes place, we group plants into five categories based on their adaptation to fire.
• Endemic fire
followers are annuals whose germination depends on fire. These grow abundantly, Towsley Canyon one hour after the fire and blossom that same location six months later. profusely and scatter their seeds. Then most species will disappear until the next fire. Examples are fire poppies, whispering bells and yellow‐throated phacelia.
• Frequent fire followers are annuals whose germination is
enhanced by fire cues such as heat, smoke and charred wood. They grow and blossom from seeds that may have remained dormant for decades. Examples are stinging lupine and popcorn flower.
• Obligate resprouters are shrubs and perennials that
survive a fire only by resprouting. They are found in moister areas such as north‐facing slopes and canyon
bottoms. Examples are toyon, scrub oak and poison oak. Also in this category are the geophytes (underground bulbs, corms and tubers), that emerge from safety underground and produce colorful flowers. Wild hyacinth is one example. • Obligate seeders are shrubs and perennials that do not survive a fire. They germinate from seeds that can remain in the soil for decades and are often found in dryer areas. Examples are deerweed and about half the species of ceanothus.
• Facultative seeders are shrubs and perennials that survive
a fire by both resprouting from stumps and germinating from seeds. Examples are laurel sumac and chamise. Some, but not all facultative seeders require fire cues for their seeds to germinate. Chamise is one of those.
When discussing post‐fire recovery, the two key ideas to remember are that “fire happens” and “recovery is a process of ecological succession”. Succession means that the characteristics of the habitat change over time as one stage follows another until it reaches a more‐or‐less stable plateau. Then another “fire happens” and the process of succession starts all over again.
One to two years post fire. Annuals (endemic and frequent fire followers) dominate the landscape. Perennials, shrubs and geophytes begin to germinate and stump sprouting occurs. Lupines and deerweed add nitrogen to the soil.
Two to three years post fire. Annuals begin to disappear and perennials re‐assert themselves, as the shady canopy increases. Perennials begin to flower and produce seeds.
Four to ten years post fire. The Coastal Scrub Sage habitat is reaching equilibrium. Woody and dead plant material begins to accumulate, full of volatile oils which will provide fuel the next fire.
Twenty to thirty years post fire. Chaparral habitats reach equilibrium. Fires more frequent than 10‐20 years may induce type conversion to non‐native weedy grassland. Seeds from obligate resprouters do not normally germinate unless there a sufficient layer of leaf litter, which can take decades to produce.
Fire has played an important role in shaping the landscape of California. As we observe how the land recovers from fire, we can see in greater detail just how this shaping occurs. Page 15
MRCA wildland firefighters are trained to the same standards as US Forest Service personnel. Here are a few photos of our people at work behind the firelines.
A base or camp is a place to rest and grab a bite to eat.
A hurried shot that captures the heartpumping activity that occurs during a wildfire. Joe Edmiston at Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve during the 2005 Topanga Fire.
Spraying fire retardant foam on a structure. Fire brings darkness, even during the middle of the day.
Mutual aid on the Day Fire of 2006. We provide mutual aid to other agencies but keep sufficient resources on hand at all times to protect our parkland.