(KRON) — Northern California’s wildlife is remarkably resilient during and after a “mega fire,” a new study on intense wildfires by UC Berkeley researchers found.
During the summer of 2018, the Mendocino Complex Fire ripped through the University of California’s Hopland Research and Extension Center.
“It felt like something out of the Lord of the Rings — like Mordor. It was hard to imagine much surviving,” said Justin Brashares, an environmental science professor at UC Berkeley.
Grassy, oak tree dotted hillsides around the center of Northern California rapidly transformed into smoldering, ash-covered “moonscapes.” The center is located on the banks of the Russian River, about 13 miles south of Ukiah.
“Mere months after the fire, animals like bobcats, coyote, gray foxes and black-tailed jackrabbits were seen returning to the area, spotted by grid of motion-sensor camera traps that Brashares’ lab has operated since 2016 at the HREC,” researchers wrote.
The study, titled “Mammalian resistance to megafire in western U.S. woodland savannas,” was published Monday in the journal “Ecosphere.”
“We were surprised that many species seem to be resistant to the impacts of the fire,” said Kendall Calhoun, a member of Brashares’ lab and lead author of the study.
The Mendocino Complex Fire was one of the largest fires in California’s recorded history. Researchers analyzed more than 500,000 camera grid images taken at the HREC in the years before and after the Mendocino Complex Fire to understand how the blaze impacted mammals on the property.
The new study is one of the first to compare continuous wildlife observations made before and after a megafire. The Mendocino Complex Fire burned an oak woodland ecosystem. Oak woodlands comprise a large portion of the state, and yet are underrepresented in wildfire research compared to the conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada, according to researchers.
“For the great majority of Californians, these oak woodlands and grassland savannahs are what we think of as the characteristic biome or ecosystem type for our state,” Brashares said. “It’s the primary ecosystem type for livestock grazing, and it’s also the primary habitat type that’s used to grow grapes for wine. It’s a critical ecosystem type.”
Of the eight animal species included in the study, six were found to be resistant to the impacts of the fire, according to the study. Western gray squirrel and black-tailed deer appeared to be more vulnerable to the impacts of the fire than other species, the study found.
“Even this incredibly hot and devastating fire still managed to leave behind these little patches of unburnt areas, and we were surprised at how quickly many species were able to move into those habitat patches and then spread back out into the burned areas as they recovered,” Brashares said. “This finding is very valuable for forest management because we can do things to the landscape that will increase the chance that when fire does come through, it will leave behind some of these fragments.”
Two months after the Mendocino Complex Fire, Calhoun and a team of researchers returned to the site when trees were still smoldering and the HREC resembled a “moonscape.” The team repaired cameras melted by the blaze and set up repaired cameras in the same position as prior to the wildfire. This ensured that their data remained as consistent as possible.
The cameras also capture photos of larger animals, including black bears and mountain lions.
The study’s co-authors included Benjamin R. Goldstein, Kaitlyn Gaynor, Alex McInturff and Leonel Solorio of UC Berkeley.