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Post Fire Assessment

Resource Assessment Program
1812 9th Street
Sacramento, CA 95811
(916) 445-0411

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Southern California Post-Fire Biological Assessment

Post-fire Biological News :

  1. Some rare trees survived fire - North County Times, 11/22/03
  2. A Trojan fire at the gates - San Diego Union Tribune, 11/16/03
  3. Laboratory for study of fire rising from south state ashes - Sacramento Bee, 11/10/03
  4. Environment caught in firestorm - North County Times, 11/8/03
  5. California fires may threaten endangered butterflies - San Diego Union Tribune, 11/7/03

Background and Opportunity

satellite imagery

The influence of wildfire on Southern California vegetation communities have been well-studied over the decades, as have the effects on a handful of wildlife species. The 2003 fires however, are humbling events to many ecologists/biologists because the scale is unprecedented in California history, the areas of wildland burned are highly valued as reserve lands in a conservation planning context, and our confidence about how species and communities will (or should) respond is uncertain. Thanks to organized monitoring efforts, landscape-scale research, and technological advances in remotely capturing of wildlife and habitat data, our knowledge of species in these systems is higher than it has ever been. Still, at the large scales affected, and considering the greater number of plant and animal species of concern than in past decades, it is not possible to pass judgment regarding the short and long-term benefits or risks to these species or the system as a whole.

Images of dead animals and walking surveys of burned areas have already provided anecdotal evidence of direct mortality for the more obvious and visible species. Numerous telemetry-fitted mountain lions, mule deer, and bighorn sheep have survived the fires, but information on smaller, more narrow-ranging, or more secretive species will be hard to come by. Displacement of animals has occurred and issues of wildlife (rodent species, bobcat, mountain lion, coyotes, etc.) seeking refugia and alternative food sources until natural regeneration of food base returns are likely to follow at the urban interface. Post-fire events such as erosion and siltation of streamcourses are of concern for species such as the speckled dace and mountain yellow-legged frog despite the co-evolutionary history with such disturbances, it is unknown how will they fare if these events occur? The potential for post-fire invasion and range expansion of exotic plant species is also of concern.

Much of the burned areas comprise wildlands that are part of reserves (e.g., Cuyumaca State Park) or large-scale conservation plan (NCCP or HCP) areas near the urban interface. Several studies and monitoring programs exist within the burned landscapes providing opportunity to combine pre- and post-fire data for several populations of animal species. Additionally, in the past 10 years, vegetation mapping and classification in much of Southern California has been conducted in association with the conservation planning efforts, providing a baseline from which to track the recovery of plant communities.

In recent years, government resource agencies have been revisiting opportunities and efficiencies afforded by collaborating on the assessment of wildlife resources. As examples, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Parks and Recreation have in the past few years established programs to consolidate and coordinate their resource assessment activities. The Department of Forestry & Fire Protection has similarly had a forest and range assessment program for several years, and at the Federal level, the National Park Service and Environmental Protection Agency have also implemented well-organized national monitoring programs. The establishment of these programs, combined with the well-established conservation planning efforts ongoing in Southern California provides a post-fire opportunity for agencies to work together toward common goals and objectives that did not exist with past fire events. Such efforts, and their recognition of the importance of developing broader, collaborative strategies and systematic/consistent methodologies and models to address the biological questions being asked have occurred at the right time given the magnitude of the fires.

Proposed Strategy

We propose a coordinated and collaborative effort among agencies, academicians, and non-governmental conservation organizations to develop a priority-based strategy for assessing fish, wildlife, native plants, and natural communities and habitats as the most effective approach to providing the data needed for conservation and management. Developing a strategy in concert with local, county, state, and federal entities would help ensure that specific biological data needs are met for local and county land use planning, and for state and federal conservation, recovery, and restoration efforts.

The strategy recommends establishing a steering group of:

  1. the wildlife agencies;
  2. agencies responsible for providing, conserving, and managing habitat; and
  3. key academic and non-government entities involved in wildlife conservation and investigation in Southern California.

The task of this group, with the wildlife agencies as the leads, will be to identify the public agency priorities for funding and implementation of resource assessment as it relates to fish, wildlife, native plants and natural communities (in the context of this discussion, wildlife includes vertebrate and invertebrate animal species).

Neighborhood on fire

Funding opportunities may be directed toward specific investigators to address particular species/habitat issues; or implementation of multi-agency team-based activities. The strategy would operate at multiple scales, ranging from specific sites that may comprise the range of a narrowly distributed species, to the scale of the specific fire incidents, to wildlands of the entire Southern California region impacted by the fires. Similarly, the range of activities that could be implemented range from fairly straightforward surveys to determine species distribution to more complex investigations of cause-and-effect or manipulative/experimental approaches. Four possible levels of implementation are proposed in terms of resource assessment:

  1. Surveys to develop baseline inventory of species and community distribution (burned and unburned), examine location/displacement effects.

  2. Initiation of (or continuation of pre-burn) monitoring efforts to assess species response (including urgency-based efforts of species severely impacted) to the wildland fires and link to management and conservation objectives within adaptive management scenarios.

  3. Initiation of natural trajectory experiments (credit Diamond 1986) with suitable unburned control sites.

  4. Assessment of post-fire landscape/habitat treatments and manipulations designed to benefit wildlife and their habitats.

In-and-of-itself, resource assessment does not answer the planning questions, but provides a foundation upon which recovery, restoration, conservation, and damage assessment planning and implementation can be based and decisions regarding activities can be implemented.

Issues/Oppurtunities Addressed

Establishing a coordinated approach for designing and implementing resource assessment activities on wildlife is appropriate and needed for the entire region, and especially so for the areas contained within multi-species conservation plan areas that already have an inventory/monitoring mandate. Objectives would include taking advantage of:

Creativity - There will be dozens of ideas, concepts, and proposals for assessing plant and animal species responses to the fires or for conducting research. A well-developed strategy to identify priorities at the regional as well as at the specific fire incident level is needed so that collectively (as it relates to the potential use of public funds, or already planned activities by agency programs) the highest priority activities are identified and implemented. If emergency funding is made available for biological assessments it would be far more productive to establish a funding system based on collective rather than individual priorities of the interests involved.

Opportunity - There are/were pre-existing projects and studies (inventory, monitoring, applied research, basic research) being conducted by scientists and programs from many institutions on plant and animal species and their habitats. Some of these projects will have been destroyed by the fires, others will see new opportunity for investigation. Within burned areas, there is now a common starting point and opportunity to initiate t0 (time zero) data collection for long-term conservation applications. A substantial acreage of wildland that burned represents reserve lands identified in regional conservation plans [Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) and Natural Communities Conservation Plans (NCCPs)]. Each of these plans has specific plant and animal monitoring that is required to ensure that conservation objectives for &covered& species are sustained and achieved.

Timing - Almost immediately, post-fire evaluations, initial assessments of impacts to wildlife, and cause-and-effect investigations are being brainstormed individually as well as collegially among scientist-ecologists interested and involved with Southern California ecosystems. Anecdotal observations, opinion based on past monitoring or research efforts are being made on a daily basis, thereby generating additional ideas that only lack a coordinated forum to hear them. Well-meaning recovery actions have even been taken without adequate consultation. Initiation of efforts is needed now. The landscapes will begin to change quickly as Winter rains transition to Spring growth of vegetation. Determination of whether a rapid response and emergency action is needed in some cases and high level policy decisions regarding the protection of at risk native species are needed. For example, a species population (sub or local population) may be enveloped in a particular burn area this concern has already been identified for the mountain yellow-legged frog and speckled dace.


Following are examples of potential actions and findings that might evolve from this concept and need expert scientific thought on whether, or how best, to proceed with implementation of a resource assessment activity:

  • Fire ecology and successional processes generally dictate that initial recolonization of burn areas progresses from high reproductive output (r-selected) annual species such as native/exotic annual grasses and forbs to shrubs and trees. Fire-adapted, sprouting shrub species however, can be anticipated to start coming back quickly. Initial time-zero secondary-succession inventories of native plant species would need to be established quickly as opportunity to assess the distribution of rare plant species that respond to fire could be diminished as chaparral cover increases over years.

  • Inventory, status determination, and assessment of endemic, at risk (e.g., state and/or federal threatened and endangered) species will need to be evaluated and prioritized. Evaluations at the population and rangewide scale are needed for context in both burned and unburned areas.

  • Direct and indirect mortality as a consequence of fire. Difficult to determine as pre-burn status likely does not exist for species other than those whose entire distribution and status was known. Modeling of potential direct/indirect effects may be a possibility, however, discussion on the need or capability of such information should occur.

  • Location effects " displacement of species to unburned areas. Assessments and inventory of species occurrences, densities, potential issues relating to competition, predation, and habitat degradation.

  • For terrestrial vertebrate species, model habitat change and predictive consequences at a community level (e.g., hardwood community) as community is set back in succession.

  • Coordination and collaboration with agencies involved in compiling abiotic changes to watersheds as a consequence to fire water flows, erosion, siltation, chemical change, microclimate, soil characteristics, etc.

Potential Collaborators

The following agencies and institutions are directly involved in the collection and compilation of species and natural communities data and information.

Government and Academic Institutions

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service USGS Western Ecological Research Center
USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service Environmental Protection Agency
USDA Forest Service USDI Bureau of Land Management
California Department of Fish and Wildlife USDI National Park Service
California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection USDI Bureau of Indian Affairs
California Department of Parks & Recreation City of San Diego County of San Diego
California Department of Water Resources Other Local and County Governments
California Environmental Protection Agency University of California, San Diego
University of California, Davis, Wildlife Health Center University of California, Riverside, Center for Conservation Biology
University of California - Integrated Hardwood Range Management Program

Non-Government Organizations

The Nature Conservancy California Native Plant Society

Resource Assessment Program Contacts:

Eric Loft, Ph.D.
Staff Environmental Scientist
Department of Fish and Wildlife
Resource Assessment Program HQ
(916) 653-9411