Sonoma County’s wildlife makes impressive rebound after fire

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Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley.

Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

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 postfire 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 towards fire. A bit bigger than a rice grain, they’re able to detect smoke from burning trees at considerable distances, in one study, over 100 kilometers away. As they fly towards 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 1600 species of bees alone, for example, more, Heydon says, than can be found in all of the Eastern US.

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.

Special coverage

This story is part of a monthly series in 2018 chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley.

Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

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 Sharpshins 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.

“On the whole,” Shafer notes, ”while there have been tragic human costs and losses, most fires don’t have a lasting serious effect in wildlands here. In fact, they tend to enrich the diversity of plants and animals. They remove old brush and recycle nutrients, open areas to sunlight and create space for new plants.”

This turnover allows a succession of species, which renews old growth forest or chaparral, and is essential to the long term health of ecosystems, which have developed after millennia to live with fires.

Tony Nelson, Stewardship Project Manager with Sonoma Land Trust, agreed that the wildlife may be less affected by the fires than by steadily encroaching human structures, which can reduce and disrupt their habit.

As wildlife cameras at Pepperwood and elsewhere documented, animals are responsive to fires, and many avoided or escaped ahead of the flames.

But when their natural corridors of movement are blocked, or they’re isolated in islands without exits, they aren’t able to flee. Highway 12, Arnold Road, and Highway 101 where it crosses San Antonio Creek are all obstacles blocking passageways between habitat, Reynolds explains. Sonoma Land Trust has worked with other stakeholders for years to create and maintain wildlife underpasses at those locations, and work with private property owners to make improvements that would allow safe passage and movement.

“Week three or four after the fire,” Nelson says, ”our camera under Highway 12 found animals were again using the passageway.” Years of work have been invested in broader efforts, with the goal of linking habitat in the Bay Area, Marin County, Sonoma and the Mayacamas, up to Berryessa.

Nelson, who has had experience managing controlled burns, sees the landscape from a different perspective, like Shafer and others who deal with wildlife on a daily basis. Disturbances happen, and nature is dynamic. Many species have evolved to respond to, and even rely on those changes. Frequent managed fires, a practice of native people here for thousands of years, may again be an important future practice, both to ensure the health of the natural environment, and protect against out of control and vastly more destructive raging wildfires.

“Fire is not tragic for wildlife,” Nelson says. “Fire is part of the natural regime.”

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@californiasparks.com.

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