Home Resources

Scorched Gaviota area 'will heal itself in time'

17 June 2004

Anna Davison

The flames of the Gaviota Fire had barely been extinguished when utility workers, land managers and scientists arrived to size up the damage and figure out what to do about it.

There are buildings to be repaired, culverts to be cleared and fences to be mended. Once the winter rains come, there's the threat of flooding or even mudslides from hills left bare by the blaze, which began on June 5 and raged through 7,400 acres before it was contained five days later and declared fully controlled Wednesday morning.

Rehabilitation crews are already in the area, working to minimize the potential for erosion, flooding and mudslides like those that followed the fires in the Southland last year and killed several people.

Although it will take awhile for the scorched earth to be covered again in chaparral and oak, and for wildlife to flourish, ecologists point out that fire is a natural part of the Southern California ecology.

"It's part of the system down there in chaparral country," said Eric Loft, a wildlife ecologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, based in Sacramento.

Anyone driving through the area might be alarmed at the blackened hills dotted with scorched shrubs and dying trees; the only obvious signs of life are utility crews and the flocks of turkey vultures that have swooped in to dine on the animals that succumbed to the smoke and flames.

However, "as much as it did cause damage and we did lose critters, it will heal itself in time," said Richard Rojas, district superintendent for the Department of Parks and Recreation, which is in charge of Gaviota State Park -- parts of which were scorched in this fire.

He said he hasn't heard of any larger animals dying in the fire -- mountain lions, deer, or bears -- but "we did see small rabbits and squirrels."

Kevin Cooper, who's leading the U.S. Forest Service's Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation team for this fire, said the casualties tend to be "small animals that aren't particularly mobile and don't have underground burrows" -- like rabbits, wood rats and quail that hide in the brush. "But those species regenerate quickly. They'll do well once the new vegetation comes up."

In the meantime, Mr. Cooper said, "you'll see red-tailed hawks all over the place" waiting to snatch small animals that survived the fire by hiding in burrows, but now have to forage on denuded hills.

However Mr. Rojas noted that we might see fewer birds of prey in the area if many small animals were killed in the blaze.

"It affects the food chain," he said.

Although a few imperiled species make their home in the Gaviota area, biologists say they don't think they've been badly affected.

Riparian areas were mostly spared, so steelhead, tidewater goby and red-legged frogs survived the fire, but "they're going to be hit with a lot of ash and sediment," Mr. Cooper said.

Steelhead, though, may eventually benefit from a fresh wash of gravel in which to lay their eggs.

"It's not good for the first year or two, but then it's often better," Mr. Cooper said.

Mr. Rojas said, "the wildlife will start to come back when the grasses do, when there's seeds for the small animals and camouflage."

Larger animals will follow once their prey is plentiful.

Biologists say plants can start to sprout within days of a fire, and the hills that are now barren will get a good vegetation cover within a few years.

"It gets dense again in 10 years," Mr. Loft said, "and it's ready to burn in 20 or 30 years."

In years past, land managers kick-started the regrowth process by dumping tons of rye seed from planes and helicopters. But the practice of seeding with introduced species is now frowned upon.

"It's even better to leave it alone," Mr. Loft said.

"Oftentimes," Mr. Cooper added, "we're finding out that the best thing to do is just wait and let nature repair itself. It can do it pretty well down here. ...It'll heal up about as soon as it can."

However Parks and Recreation staff plan to give nature a helping hand, Mr. Rojas said, by collecting seeds from areas that escaped the blaze and spreading them on scorched earth next spring.

In the meantime, Mr. Rojas said his staff will quickly repair boundary fences to stop livestock trampling the bare areas where grasses will soon sprout.

But it's not just hungry stock that he's worried about.

"My concern is that the public is aware that there may be sensitive areas," Mr. Rojas said.

In particular, he's trying to keep people from trampling the coastal terraces just south of Gaviota State Park -- home to the endangered Gaviota tarplant -- where thick brush "prevented folks pulling off the highway and just going down to the ocean."

Now, the brush is gone and staff will put up signs to tell the public not to venture down the terrace. Mr. Rojas is also working with utility companies planning repairs to make sure they don't dig up sensitive sites -- "Our coastline is rich in historic sites and cultural resources," he said.

But the bare, scorched earth also presents problems with erosion, flooding and possibly even mudslides. Because the Gaviota area hadn't burned in 49 years -- not since the Refugio fire seared 84,000 acres -- "you have more fuel," Mr. Cooper said. "It burns hotter, so you can lose more of your organic matter, your topsoil. You get more runoff. It takes longer to heal."

Rehabilitation crews have already begun taking steps to limit erosion and runoff -- beginning with what they call "suppression rehabilitation," which attempts to repair the damage from firefighting efforts.

Fire lines cleared by bulldozers to contain the fire can quickly erode, Mr. Cooper said, so "we go back in and pull the top soil and the vegetation back."

Hand-cleared lines are dealt with in a similar way, he said.

Members of the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation team provide information to downstream property owners about the possibility of flooding, erosion and mudslides.

"The big thing is to try to warn people that this could happen," Mr. Cooper said. "It all depends on the weather, of course."

Mr. Rojas said Parks and Recreation staff may have to use hay bales and sandbags to protect campgrounds, buildings and other infrastructure from flooding once the rains come.

Although it's too early to estimate the cost of the rehabilitation efforts, Mr. Rojas said it's unlikely to be as much as fighting the fire -- $5.5 million.

Despite the cost, the fire will likely be a boon to the area.

"We were contemplating having a controlled fire to reduce the fuel because our fear was that we'd have a raging fire in September," Mr. Rojas said.

However staff was hesitant because of the danger to nearby homes and oil and gas lines running through the area, as well as the problem of smoke blowing onto highways.

This unscheduled burn went about as well as land managers could have hoped for, Mr. Rojas said.

There were no deaths or serious injuries, property damage was minimal and Highway 101 was only closed for a day. Also, the fire didn't burn clear down every hillside and through every canyon -- it created a mosaic pattern of burned patches interspersed with untouched areas, meaning there's less danger of erosion and flooding than if the blaze had charred vast areas.

"As fires go, we could benefit," Mr. Rojas said.