As the Zaca Fire continues to burn in the back country between Santa Barbara and Ojai, it brings up memories of last year’s epochal Day Fire, which burned for weeks, threatening our region repeatedly, costing tens of millions of dollars, and changing the landscape in hundreds of thousands of acres in the Los Padres National Forest.
But an excellent story by Ventura County writer Chuck Graham in Forest magazine, with amazing photos, reminds us that these changes aren’t all bad. Although the notion that the chaparral in Southern California is "meant" to burn is a little misleading, because it will take decades before it again blankets the land, the burn-off does have important benefits for wildlife, including endangered species.
It’s common to describe a charred wilderness landscape as devastated, but in this case the word isn’t accurate.
“For chaparral and grassland habitats like the Sespe,
these fires help create better habitat conditions that open up areas
that have been choked by vegetation,” says Chris Barr, refuge manager
for the condor recovery program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Sevice.
The fire, moving hot and fast, eliminated overgrown
chaparral that for decades created a canopy that stunted any new growth
beneath it. Cleared of the canopy, the area is now more hospitable to
two of the rarest creatures in the Los Padres National Forest: the
desert bighorn sheep and the critically endangered California condor.
The Sespe Wilderness, the westernmost point in the historic range of
bighorn sheep and one of the last sanctuaries of the condor, now has an
open canopy which will increase forage opportunities for both species.
It will also improve visibility for the bighorns, and thereby help them
evade mountain lions.
“Bighorns have the innate drive to go in a certain
direction when spooked,” says Maeton Freel, wildlife biologist for the
Los Padres National Forest. “Before, they didn’t know where the escape
terrain was, and mountain lions were picking them off.
And here’s a great photo he took of a California condor, while in the backcountry. Look close and you can see the radio beacon attached to the wing: