California Fish & Wildlife Journal

Jan 4, 2021 at 8:00am

Wildland fires are burning across the western United States in 2020. It is not the firsttime, but the scale of wildfires, along with the until-recently inconceivable destruction of property, human communities, and human lives, have gotten the attention of the entire nation. And the entire community of fire scientists and fire ecologists.

California may have the greatest range and variation in wildfire behavior, regime, and effects. Most of the State’s ecological regions, including oak woodlands, conifer forests, chaparral, and native grass communities are adapted to wildfire. Their very existence and functioning depends on particular attributes of wildfire, often referred to as fire regime. Hundreds of plant species, including those that are key to ecological health (i.e., Arctostaphylos ssp., Ceanothus spp., Quercus spp., Pinus spp.) are adapted and dependent on wildfire. Many of the State’s rare and endemic species co-exist with wildfire.

Where plants and plant communities go, animals follow. Though animals are not adapted to fire, they do have effective mechanisms to respond to fire. Some animals, included species of birds, rodents, and beetles, prosper for various periods of time only after wildfires occur.

Ecologically, wildfire may be the second in importance only to water in California. Without fire or with greatly altered fire regimes, native plant and animal communities are greatly impacted. Then again, wildfire is an ever-growing concern and impact not only to public lands and wildlife but human communities. The current trajectory of trends in extreme wildfire behavior and larger wildfires has been expected by the fire-fighting community, fire scientists, and fire ecologists. And as our climate continues to change, the future is one of great concern and uncertainty.

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