- Climate change projections tell us that the extremes of wildfire season could soon become the rule, rather than the exception. As evidenced in recent years, irregular precipitation patterns and changes in temperature will result in an extended wildfire season and more intense fires.
- Successful adaptation strategies have been employed in response to three particular impacts to forest habitats: the introduction of invasive species, the devastation of tree species, and post-fire erosion.
- Each of these adaptation actions has contributed to a reduction in wildfire spread for specific ecosystems. In turn, this means greater survival for key wildlife species and more vibrant, thriving landscapes as a whole.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Over the past few days, the Kincade Fire has burned nearly 75,000 acres in Sonoma County, California, forcing 180,000 people to evacuate. Miles away, the Getty Fire burned through more than 656 acres in West Los Angeles.
Unfortunately for those in the western U.S., this is becoming an all too familiar story.
Just a year ago, in November 2018, Paradise, California experienced the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history, resulting in the death of 85 people. These are only a few of the many devastating wildfires California has experienced over the past two years, most of which destroyed homes, local businesses, and valuable habitat for wildlife. To this day, California residents are grappling with the immense destruction these fires leave in their wake.
Climate change projections tell us that the extremes of wildfire season could soon become the rule, rather than the exception. As evidenced in recent years, irregular precipitation patterns and changes in temperature will result in an extended wildfire season and more intense fires. These can be sparked by lightning strikes or human error, and pose a serious threat to wildlife, habitats, and ecosystems.
Recognizing the gravity of this particular climate change impact, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund (CAF), for which I serve as program manager, is supporting organizations that are helping ecosystems adapt in the face of bigger, hotter fires. Successful adaptation strategies have been employed in response to three particular impacts to forest habitats: the introduction of invasive species, the devastation of tree species, and post-fire erosion. CAF has supported work in all of these areas and seen effective adaptation measures implemented firsthand. Let’s take them one at a time.
First, invasive species. Certain elements of an ecosystem make it more vulnerable to climate change threats like wildfire. Invasive species tend to upset the balance of an ecosystem by driving out native species through competition and leaving the natural system weakened as a result. In Southern California, exotic grasses have outperformed native ones, leaving dry, combustible material on the ground for a portion of their growing season.
The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation worked to reduce the density and cover of invasive species, and planted over 20,300 coastal sage scrub plants, a native species that is less vulnerable to frequent fires.
The short-term goal of this strategy was to restore the Lake Hodges area to a state in which the average interval between fires is more than 30 years, with a long-term goal of enhancing the San Dieguito River wildlife corridor. Doing so will allow species to better respond to climate change by migrating to more suitable and less fire-prone habitat.
Turning to threats facing specific tree species, oak habitat is disappearing from the United States and in Oregon in particular, where it is increasingly threatened by wildfire. For thousands of years, these beautiful woodlands have provided critical habitat to a host of wildlife species, ranging from insects to birds and mammals.
With less than 10 percent of the original oak woodlands left in many places, a single fire event could have devastating impacts. In 2016, Lomakatsi Restoration Institute in Rogue River Basin, Oregon focused its efforts towards protecting species that are most vulnerable to climate change.
Through prescribed burns, invasive species removal, and strategic vegetation reduction, the Institute successfully increased fire resistance and climate change adaptive capacity on 1,400 acres of oak habitat.
Our last example looks at erosion. Water sources are becoming increasingly scarce in the arid Sky Island region of Southern Arizona. A cycle of severe fires followed by intense precipitation is altering entire watersheds in irreparable ways. Burned areas that receive no rehabilitative treatment experience destructive erosion, potentially interrupting wildlife and pollinator corridors.
With support from CAF, Sky Island Alliance installed erosion-control structures in watersheds—specifically those that had experienced recent high-intensity fire or were likely to experience such fires in the near future—to increase water infiltration and slow erosion, ultimately increasing soil moisture and improving post-fire vegetation recovery.
Further, the Alliance planted native flora, protecting five critical springs to ensure wildlife have sufficient food, water, and shelter in the event of future fires.
Each of these adaptation actions has contributed to a reduction in wildfire spread for these specific ecosystems. In turn, this means greater survival for key wildlife species and more vibrant, thriving landscapes as a whole.
Not only are these organizations providing on-the-ground assistance to wildlife and ecosystems, but through their exploration of different adaptation methods, they can inform other practitioners about successes, obstacles, and opportunities. In gathering this knowledge, we may be better prepared to prevent tragedies such as the Kincade Fire, and ensure safer, more resilient landscapes in the wildfire seasons to come.
Katie Jung is the Program Manager for the WCS Climate Adaptation Fund.
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