Greetings FireSafe Friends,
Today I’m writing my first blog post for our newly revamped website. My goal with this section is to share things I know a little bit about (or sometimes a lot), things that make me go hmmmm, things I have an opinion on, or things I’m researching and learning about.
As the executive director, it’s up to me to set up our organization for success in all our different programs as well as administration and fundraising. One of my goals is to live up to the motto of “Do good things, in good places, in good time.” Meanwhile I know that no good deed goes unpunished, and good intentions can lead to terrible consequences.
A tension exists in getting good things done, in that you need to know that things are complicated and sometimes you need to get deep into certain topics to understand the impacts of what you are doing.
Take for example the interplay between the chaparral plant Chamise, the little bird that lives in it called the Wrentit, and the impacts of developing a ridgeline fuel break to help prepare for wildfire so that wildfires can be contained to single watersheds when possible.
Adenostoma fasciculatum, also known as Chamise, Greasewood or Green Gasoline (a favorite moniker of firefighters), is a native shrub that inhabits sun-drenched slopes throughout much of California. It is well adapted to tolerate lack of summer water on the bleakest locations, and to recover its dominance of these sites after being burned to the ground in a wildfire.
Sometimes I hear firefighters say chaparral plants “need fire” but this is rarely true in a pure sense. Many are adapted to survive and reestablish their populations after a fire through a variety of mechanisms, such as through dormant seeds that are stimulated by chemicals found in smoke and ash, or through underground roots or burls that survive wildfire with living tissue that can regrow new stems above ground.
Chamise can be very long-lived for a shrub. “Old growth chaparral” can include individual plants that are decades, even more than a hundred years old. Chamise forms dense impenetrable thickets on many hillsides and ridges in the Santa Cruz Mountains where the FireSafe Council works. The shrub’s adaptations include fine needle-like foliage with a waxy coating that prevents desiccation, and a thickened burl at the base, sometimes partially exposed and sometimes completely underground. This burl is also called a lignotuber, and it contains many little buds embedded in curls and ridges of hard woody tissue, which lay quiet under the mature plant doing basically nothing most of the time. But inside those well-protected buds are little cells that can become new twigs at some future date when conditions are right. Conditions that allow those buds to activate and grow include when the top of the shrub is burned off in a wildfire, or cut off by people when they create a fuel break through the chaparral.
Because fuel breaks are located where firefighters think it makes sense to engage and attempt to halt forward progress on a wildfire, they are often constructed on top of ridges that feature chaparral, grassland, or hardwood forests. When a ridge trends east-west, the south side often has chaparral and the north side will have trees such as Oak and Madrone. When a ridge trends north-south, it may be entirely covered in chaparral. The only way to build a fuel break is to cut down all the shrubs, which if maintained, permanently alters the ecosystem of the ridge.
In that ecosystem lives a little bird you may have heard but might never have seen. This little bird is the Wrentit, Chamaea fasciata, a unique and perky critter with a song that rings like the bouncing ping-pong ball that skitters across the apparatus bay during firefighter workout hour at the Saratoga Fire Station where our office is located.
Wrentits are lovely to listen to, but wear a drab covering of brown and gray tones and hide most of the time within the shrubs. That behavior and lack of color make them nearly invisible to most of us. They have been studied for their habit of staying put. In other words, they don’t migrate and tend to live in the same location throughout their lives. Ornithologists call this lifestyle “sedentary,” and in fact they may be the most sedentary of all north american birds, flitting about a section of ridge that may be less than a quarter mile in length.
So what happens to the Wrentit when we build a fuel break?
The truth is that fuel breaks, if they are maintained, reduce Wrentit habitat and can directly impact individual birds, destroying their homeland. Where can a Wrentit go when we cut a swath through the Chamise? Will there be an unoccupied spot in the ecosystem for that bird? How will it do, learning how to hunt and stay safe in a whole new territory?
The answer is that we do not know, but it’s probably safe to assume that our fuel break project may reduce the population of wrentits on that ridgeline.
It’s sobering. We want to do good things, in good places, in good time. How do we evaluate our plans and create projects that are beneficial when we know there are negative consequences?
One way to get some perspective is to visit areas of chaparral that have been burned over in high-intensity wildfires. These vast swaths of blackened landscape contain no Wrentits at all. High intensity wildfire can destroy the lignotubers of Chamise, sterilize the soil and eliminate the seed bank, and make recovery of the plant populations take a very long time. Those Wrentits that flew away from the flames were surely displaced into a world already fully occupied. Without question, wildfires lead to the demise of wildlife including charismatic little critters like the Wrentit. It can take a long time for burned slopes to return to vigor and for the landscape to once again support a healthy population of Wrentits.
Our goal is not to stop every wildfire. It’s not to build superhighways along every ridgeline. Our goal is to help our region be better adapted to a landscape where wildfire is a normal periodic disturbance, but not a catastrophic one, with reduced negative impacts on people, watersheds, and wildlife.
Carefully created ridgeline fuel breaks should be designed to help Wrentits survive the disturbance, should help firefighters corral the flames into smaller boxes and prevent massive burn scars covering many thousands of acres.
If we do our job well, perhaps the sedentary little Wrentit will enjoy a life-long home among old-growth Chamise.
Links to photos, videos, and sound of the above: