Sonoma County’s wildlife makes impressive rebound after fire
To experts tracking the status of wildlife after last year’s fires, one thing stands out. It appears the creatures living in the fire zones are recovering more rapidly than their human neighbors. As the complex process of restoring people’s homes, lives and neighborhoods grinds slowly forward, nature’s wild inhabitants are rebounding with surprising speed and efficiency.
Eight months after the fires, Cyndy Shafer, resource manager for the State Parks District that includes Sugarloaf and Trione-Annadel, reports “We don’t notice a great difference in wildlife numbers.”
While there were certainly casualties and dramatic changes in ground cover and habitat, overall, the resilience of wildlife in post-fire Sonoma County has been both encouraging and remarkable to observe. Animal cams at several locations have recently spotted black bear, puma, bobcats and other large mammals moving back.
How wildlife dealt with the fire here is a matter of intense interest. For naturalists, park and wild space managers, the recent burns offer a historically unique opportunity to learn what actually happens when flames sweep through local ecosystems. Studies and observation projects are now underway in preserves like Pepperwood and Bouverie, in regional and state parks, and protected spaces such as the Glen Oaks, Sears Point and Sonoma Mountain properties managed by Sonoma Land Trust, which all suffered during the fires.
The evidence so far shows nature’s inhabitants have interesting and diverse strategies for coping, and even prospering, when fires come.
Not every creature flees the smoke and flame, for example. Certain insects, like the charcoal beetle, actually fly toward fire. A bit bigger than a rice grain, they’re able to detect smoke from burning trees at considerable distances, in one study, over 60 miles away. As they fly toward the smoky source, they expose tiny structures under their forearms which, remarkably, can detect heat. This guides them to the fires. Firefighters often complain about the swarming beetles, which bite and climb under clothes.
When the flames subside, females find logs that have recently burned, some still smoldering, to lay eggs. By being first to the newly burned wood, they have an advantage over other wood beetles, and their larva eat wood that hasn’t had a chance to entirely dry out.
There are even wasps that come to fires just to hunt the charcoal beetles.
Although they’re usually overlooked in favor of the big animals, insects are the most populous and diverse wildlife in our entire post-fire ecosystem. Steve Heydon, senior scientist at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis, points out they’re also key to other species’ recovery. Insects are the invisible foundation of the food chain, sustaining many types of birds, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles and other creatures, which in turn keep the bigger animals fed.
Insects help to recycle dead leaves and plants, and pollinate the flowers and plants that spring up in the ashes, helping to ensure they repopulate burned areas. California is home to more than 1,600 species of bees alone, for example, more, Heydon says, than can be found in all of the eastern United States.
Birds are also mobile, and readily return to feed on the insects. At Pepperwood Preserve, which burned extensively, more than 120 species of birds were recorded before the fire. Nicole Barden, Environmental Educator, believes there’s been changes in population in the burn areas, including an increased number of lazuli buntings, which have stunning bright blue feathers. They’re a “fire following” species, she says, one of the birds that are known to be attracted to burned areas.
Another tiny migratory bird has come back for the spring, to Barden’s relief, the tiny brown grasshopper sparrow. Quite rare in California, it has been recorded for several seasons at Pepperwood. The name probably reflects its call, a thin high trill, like a cricket. Barden, who lost her home in the fires at the preserve, has also seen an increase in raptors, like sharp-shinneds and Cooper hawks.
They’re after the local species of burrowing small mammals. They weather fire by plugging surface holes with dirt when they sense fire coming, and hunkering down in their underground nests, where there’s oxygen and often stashes of food. They may remain there until new shoots and greens appear to eat, before venturing out.
One important feature of the fires here, tied to wildlife recovery, is their patchwork of intensity. Like a mosaic, lightly burned pockets leave spaces for wildlife, seeds and eggs to survive, which then spread into the surrounding regions, speeding recovery.