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Life After Loss: Thomas Fire Recovery

Life After Loss: Thomas Fire Recovery

By Patt Wilson McDaniel

The Channel Islands Chapter (Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties) of the California Native Plant Society has many members and neighbors who have suffered horrendous loss in the Thomas Fire. We are all greatly saddened but are relieved that there was not more loss of life. At the same time, we are heartened by the wonderful community strength and support. We are also encouraged to see an outpouring of concern for the beautiful and interesting natural areas that surround our communities.

Life After Fire

There has been considerable discussion of the best ways to proceed and many knowledgeable people from the community have contributed their expertise to the discussion, especially leadership at the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. The California Native Plant Society has been studying the effects of fire and related concerns and gathering data for over 50 years. Fire management has come a long way from the days when hillsides were seeded to ‘prevent runoff and erosion’ and agencies have come to recognize this as counter-productive.

Weed, don’t Seed!

There is still a desire to ‘do something’, however, by many, and this is totally understandable. Although there are some things that can be ‘done’, the most advantageous approach is to observe what nature does, keep an eye out for invasive weed species and remove them, and take measures to control runoff and erosion. Seeding, even with natives, is not a good approach for preventing erosion. Most natural areas will have a substantial seed bank with a variety of local species. Our area is one of the most diverse areas in the world in terms of plant species. When fire clears dense, old chaparral, the space is opened up and seed banks that have been waiting for many years to be stimulated by fire, flourish and dormant root systems sprout anew. Our local vegetation has evolved with occasional fires and many of the local species have evolved adaptation methods to survive fires and remain dormant for years between fires. Many seeds need to be scarified by fire to break the outer coating or change its chemical composition and allow the seed to germinate. Other plants have large root systems that retain nutrients and energy and are able to ‘stump sprout’ after a fire. Some of these plants may have been dormant for years while being covered up by mature chaparral. Some plants are explosively flammable, others are remarkably fire resistant. Our Valley Oak (Quercus agrifolia), for example, is fire resistant, though like all plants, it will burn. I have heard firemen say it can be used as an indicator to measure how hot the fire was. Even in the hottest fire, however, Oak trees recover well, even sprouting new growth from the trunk.

Erosion After Fire

The combination of a variety of annual and perennial plants growing from seed and the regrowth of shrubs from stumps, results in a complex interweaving of different root types that can stabilize the soil better than any seeding mix that could be devised, not to mention that the plants that are there are the ones that have evolved to live in relationship to the each other, the animals, insects, and microorganisms for millions of years. We learned the hard way in the past that seeding with ryegrass caused more problems that it solved. Sure, it appeared to sprout and grow fast, but the native grasses, it turned out, send a root very quickly, very deeply and the resulting plant was more stable and remained green longer. The annual rye would spread out roots and steal water from the native grasses, grow rapidly then die quickly when the rain declined, resulting in greater fuel for fires and providing less stability in the soil than the native perennial bunch grasses it had crowded out. There are so many stories in habitat management that demonstrate how difficult it is to improve on what nature has devised over the millennia that restoration professionals are very cautious in their recommendations. The key factor in flooding from runoff is the nature of rain. If we get gentle rains, spaced out, the water will soak in and the plants will grow and provide the protection we need for future rains. If the rains come hard and heavy, there would have been nothing that could have prevented runoff except the physical methods of erosion and flood control that current technology provides.

Want to Do Something? Here are a couple things you can do:

1) Volunteer for organizations that are organizing weed control and erosion control projects. CNPS will spread the word of volunteer projects to our members and Facebook followers. You can volunteer with the OVLC at

2) Plant natives in your gardens and city landscapes.

Aren’t natives what just burned? Yes, but all plants burn; some natives are more fire resistant than some common non-native landscape plants. Natives in the landscape can provide some refuge for birds and insects and some animals, especially in the case of temporary loss of habitat such as in the fires we have experienced.

Some interesting quotes from the experts!

“ . . . the recovery in healthy habitat comes in a cascade of immediate germination from seedbanks, root sprouts, and stump sprouts. Species like wild cucumber and morning glory vines immediately spread out vines to cover the ground to prevent erosion. Bunch grasses re-sprout. Bay laurel puts out fresh sprouts very fast, big pod Ceanothus germinates very quickly, as do some Prunus, while spiny Ceanothus prefers to stump sprout, as do toyon, and some Arctostaphylus. Of course there are the fire-followers who are there quickly to stabilize the soil and provide food and shelter for the animals. Malosma laurina is very interesting because it stump sprouts quickly, puts out new growth fast and is one of the first to bloom and provide berries for birds and animals to eat. The grasses produce seeds; the fire followers bloom and provide pollen and nectar. The chaparral community is truly a community, with many different species phasing in their recovery so the ecosystem can survive. It seems to take about five years to reach a point where all the main plants are again able to produce fairly healthy (viable) seeds and fruit. No one should add seeds or new plants until the severity of the fire damage is known. For instance, all trees are burned past their root collars, large bunch grasses are burned down into the ground, and rodent tunnels are collapsed or filled with char. One really needs to wait until there is some rain to see what comes up. “

~ Betsey Landis, Los Angeles Santa Monica Mountains Chapter CNPS


On Interface Gardens:

“For the areas of the garden that contained naturally occurring natives, you need do nothing, as they will return on their own. This is highly unlikely to happen with any plantings, be they native or exotic. They will almost certainly need to be replanted.

The burned areas will likely show some surprises with rarely seen fire-following natives, this coming spring.

“I would suggest that garden folks watch what happens naturally this spring before deciding exactly what to do to restore the garden and Mother Nature may show you some ideas as to what parts to maintain in natives and where there are good opportunities for replanting the exotic species. Some areas will likely become infested with nasty weeds, so those areas are the places I would focus restoration attention first.

“Erosion control will be of concern, but focus your energies on key places, such as at culverts and roads and trails. The undisturbed (other than burning) will not likely erode excessively.
“Document the condition of the garden as you go along. It will be an important story to tell.”

~David Magney, Ventura County Botanist, CNPS Rare Plant Program Manager
“For the most part, “wildflower” mixes are genetically mixed up and come from many sources and will pollute the existing flora from a genetic point of view (unless you have local seed). If we get light rain, the fire-followers and non-natives will fill in very quickly, and the shrubs will re-sprout even before that. Our recommendation is to use biodegradable matting (like coconut fiber) with a wide weave so plants can sprout through it. Farm supply stores carry it, although a lot of people will be trying to buy it now (it may need to be ordered). The matting should be placed on steep, bare slopes and held in place with fabric staples (also sold with the matting). On very steep slopes the fabric can be rolled into “wattles” and held in place with wooded stakes to make check dams.”

~Ken Owen, Executive Director, Channel Islands Restoration


“The only additional info I will add to what you have said Ken is to be very careful when choosing the material to use for erosion control matting. As Ken mentioned, using biodegradable materials such as coconut fiber is a good idea. Be aware that the mesh that keeps the internal fibers (coconut) together can be either biodegradable OR made from a variety of different plastics that are meant to stay in place for a very long and not degrade. Depending on the slope profile and conditions, the benefits of leaving the plastic mesh in place may outweigh the costs. So make sure you know your specific goals of the areas targeted for erosion control and pick the products that will work best for each area.

“Also, if you decide to use the pre-made wattles do your research on the filling of the wattle. They are made from nearly every material you can think of. The main threat is introducing weed seed into a native area. There are so called “weed free” wattles. But I have heard stories of their use and claims that they actually brought in certain types of weeds as well. Again, this is anecdotal evidence from 2nd hand conversations. Be aware of the same mesh concerns as with the matting as well.

“Bottom line in deciding which erosion control material is most appropriate for your project is to do your homework.

“Depending on the conditions, contours and overall goals of your specific restoration sites erosion control materials may not be necessary. The spreading of locally sourced seed and possibly the installation of vegetative cuttings/container stock may all that is needed. Of course the plant palette would be as site specific as possible and could transition between multiple zones such as riparian, chaparral, etc.”

~Kevin Thompson, Project Manager, Channel Islands Restoration



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