Fire Ecology

Fire Ecology

Wildfire is a natural and vital part of California ecosystems.  Many plant and animal species have adapted to naturally occurring wildfire and need it to germinate, reproduce, or nurture their young.

Manzanita and fire-chaser beetles are two such species; the latter can detect the infrared radiation of fire and swarm towards it to use the charred wood (which is sometimes still smoldering) to lay their eggs.

Additionally, burned trees provide habitat for birds. Fire prepares soil for new growth by burning older or diseased trees into nutrient-rich ash, returning their stored carbon back to the soil. As fires remove undergrowth, more sunlight reaches the forest floor, encouraging growth and regulating invasive species that compete with native vegetation for resources. Fire disturbance is a reset button for California’s unique ecology.

The Preserve’s coastal redwoods are highly resistant to fire. A year after a spate of fires swept northern and central California in 2008, scientists observed redwoods that had been scorched were covered anew in green foliage. 

Historically, land managers underestimated the importance of fire and called for its active suppression. When wildfires are suppressed, dry fuel builds up, creating conditions for a much more intense and less manageable fire. These are the catastrophic events that damage human and natural communities. They can burn out organic material in the soil, promoting erosion and contributing to other natural disasters like landslides.

After a fire, the landscape goes through a process called ecological succession, which refers to the stages of regrowth. The first colonizing species after a fire are intrepid herbaceous species like grasses and weeds. Shrubs arrive next. More cautious, slower-growing trees arrive behind them, followed by early successional trees like pines.  Ultimately, longer-lived hardwoods such as oak and hickory join the community, supplying forest canopy.

The Indigenous peoples of California understood the benefits of fire and actively used it to cultivate plant diversity at various stages of succession.  Today in California, the U.S. Forest Service is working with indigenous leaders to revitalize fire management practices that preserve watersheds, ease the effects of drought, and create fire barriers. Controlled burns are often used to promote useful plants and discourage larger, more intense fires. 

On The Preserve, we regularly work with experts in wildfire management, and the majority of full time staff are red card certified wildland firefighters.