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Creekside Fire Ecology

Fire is a part of life for the plants and animals of California. Most species have developed special adaptations to live through the periodic cycles of burns and in fact some require it. Depending on the location and annual conditions, the passage of a fire often creates a mosaic of burned areas with some thoroughly burned while others may be left untouched. This pattern promotes diversity for both the plants and animals. In some cases, the influence is locally isolated or, in extreme cases, is more widespread at a landscape scale.  But it is important to remember that although the immediate effects are dramatic the recovery begins immediately.

Walking through a burned area the next morning will reveal signs that many of the animal species that survived are already busy getting on with their lives. Some, like hawks and owls can take advantage of the absence of cover when the rodents emerge from their burrows. Newly spun spiderwebs can be found strung among burnt branches as early as the next morning.

Many plants immediately begin sprouting from protected roots (redbud image). Others require the heat or the chemicals it produces to sprout new seeds. Sprouting from the roots or “stump sprouting” is a commonly employed tactic to deal with fire and can be seen in redbud (Cercis occidentalis), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), foothill ash (Fraxinus dipetala), the oaks (Quercus sp.) and many others. In the nursery some of these fire-adapted species cause us challenges requiring experimental techniques like using blow torches to heat seeds or create ashes to mix with what are called “serotinous” seed species. The redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), can also sprout from the roots but like many trees the thick bark can also act as a protective heat shield during less intense fires.

Recent fires along Putah Creek have influenced the plants and animals in many ways as do all activities in our region. But rest assured that the ecosystems do recover and that the services they provide will continue. We are thankful that not all regions burn in the same way or at the same times and that there are many places where we can still walk along shaded paths enjoying the plants and animals that did not get involved in this year’s fire cycle.