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Phoenix Ecosystems: California will rise from the Ashes

By Miles Bolton



Smoking rising over the San Diego skyline. Image does not belong to SKEPTIPOL.

Going into 2018, California has been hobbled by the far reaching consequences of prolonged drought and more recently the damage inflicted by wildfires. In the aftermath of the recent wildfires that have razed California, almost 500,000 acres(781.25 square miles) has been impacted, twice last years acreage. The wildfire toll also includes 42 deaths, 8,400 Structures burned, and the total damage inflicted is estimated at to be around $3 billion dollars.

On top of that, Southern California’s economy took a hit as at least 24 wineries in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties have been partially or fully destroyed. Some of the harder hit wineries anticipate a 5 year recovery period for their grape vines to return to full vitality. A bougee statistic maybe, considering the overall scale of the fire, however Southern California’s wineries are incredibly valuable for their tourism industry, which grossed $1.92 billion last year, and the people who make a living from it. The potentially long lasting economic impact of these wildfires isn’t yet quantifiable on a general scale but it can be assured that California’s wine industries aren’t alone as the agricultural sector, already hampered by chronic drought, is sure to be stunted as well.

While the general public is well aware of California’s history with wildfires the fire ecology behind these wildfires isn’t as well understood. In order for California and other vulnerable areas to limit the damage caused by wildfires, it’s essential that a fire management strategy designed to work in sync with natural ecological processes is implemented for the benefit of the populace and the ecosystems that remain.



Chaparral habitat at Mission Trails Park (San Diego, CA)

FIRE  ECOLOGY (CHAPARRALS  &  HARDWOOD  FORESTS)

California, as a consequence of its climate and the ecosystems that make it up, is naturally susceptible to wildfires and the ecosystems vulnerable to these natural disasters oftentimes depend on these fires to maintain their biodiversity. The Chaparral and Hardwood Forests are the two main culprits for naturally occurring wildfires.

Many of the shrub and tree species in these biomes depend on wildfires as a means of localized seed dispersal, removal of potentially dominant plant species, and for the replenishment of nutrients. In fact, natural periodic fires are essential for maintaining these ecosystems which would likely transition into a different biome type if these fires didn’t enable endemic plants to outcompete other faster growing plant species.

In the Chaparral, Great Basin Sage Scrub experiences frequent lightning fires which will burn the parent plant while causing nearby dormant seeds to germinate, kicking off a new growth cycle as a result. In the case of the Californias Hardwood Forests, the California Black Oak has adapted a couple of abilities to cope with wildfires. The California Black Oak has a thick, fire resistant layer of bark to stave off small fires and in the event of a larger fire where the top half gets burned off the tree is able to easily resprout from its trunk. Worst case scenario for the Black Oak, the parent tree dies and the newly dispersed acorns from the tree work to colonize the scorched earth left over.

Although wildfires diminish the overall nutrient content in the soil, they do help increase nutrient availability therefore allowing for pioneer species and fire adapted plant species to capitalize on these ecological disturbances. These ecosystems thrive on a steady balance of natural wildfires and if the regularity and intensity of said fires is tampered with the ecosystems and neighboring urban environments suffer.



Controlled Chaparral Burn in Fort Ord, CA by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

CONTROLLED BURNS/FIRE MANAGEMENT

As California’s population has risen over the years, bringing families into closer contact with fire disturbed ecosystems both state and federal organizations have worked hard to both manage and suppress natural and human caused fires. The role humans play by suppressing/limiting natural fires and by starting their own has its own unintended consequences despite our best intentions. By preventing the occurrence of smaller, periodic wildfires we end up increasing the overall fuel load (burnable plants) available in said area which allows for the event of a much larger wildfire in the future.

​This problem can be averted by applying controlled burns to vulnerable areas where fire ecologists could properly monitor the fuel load and the overall wildfire risk so that they could lessen the risk of a large scale fire. This isn’t a new idea and it is being practiced in California as well as throughout the rest of the country but it isn’t necessarily the common practice.



Turkey tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) posting up on a log

THE ROLE OF MUSHROOMS

Believe it or not, mushrooms may provide one of the most effective solutions in helping remediate ecosystems affected by wildfire. One of the consequences of wildlifes during the modern era, is that in the process of the fire burning and coming into the path of human society is that it leaves lots of toxic ash. Toxic ash is composed of incinerated plastics, hydrocarbons (ex: crude oil), solvents, pesticides, and heavy metals which would make it much more difficult for ecosystems and homo sapien communities to recover from wildfires.

After the October wildfires in California, Erik Larsen (landscape architect/permaculture educator) organized a mycoremediation effort based on using mushrooms and compost to absorb and nullify toxic ash runoff. With support from Sonoma Compost, West Marin Compost, and Petalumas Wattle(Rice Straw/Stick Barriers) Guy they decided to lace the wattle barriers with mycelium (underground weblike fungus network) and place the potent barriers in affected areas of Sonoma County.

​The resulting mushrooms, through the process of chelation, (binding & neutralization of metal ions) would absorb the toxic chemicals and in some instances neutralize them completely. The accompanying compost also plays a role in helping chelate and biodegrade hydrocarbons. Then the toxic batch of mushrooms and is harvested and disposed of at a separate facility. The affected area is then cleansed of the majority of harmful chemicals that were left over from toxic ash runoff, allowing pioneer species to start restoring ecosystems, saving vulnerable fresh water supplies, and helping improve overall public health.



Porcelain fungus in the Basque Country of Spain. Unrelated to California but hey pretty cool mushroom right?

IMPACT OF CLIMATE CHANGE

Sorry to bring Climate Change into this as it’s a topic in most environmentally wired articles but its relevant and it certainly does influence most things in life these days. While everyone is abundantly aware of the drought (worst on record) that California suffered through for the past few years, few probably considered any lingering effects on fire risk following the rain showers that ended the drought in the spring.

While the influx of rain was a blessing at first, it served to fuel a growth spurt of trees and shrubs that became prime kindling for wildfires during a dry spell, increasing the ‘fuel load’ during the summer and fall. April-September, 2017 were the warmest months on record for California which combined with the meager amount of rainfall in the Los Angeles area and the high, dry Santa Ana winds (high of 70mph) created ideal wildfire conditions.

Overall, more than 9.2 million acres have burned this year in the U.S, far in excess of the 6 million acre annual average, with the national bill for wildfire damage currently sitting at $10 billion dollars. A recent study found that “human caused warming” has caused the total area burned in the western US over the past 33 years to double. While preventative controlled burns could help mitigate California wildfires, with the problem likely to worsen in the future there needs to be more investment into fire management in order to come up with more far reaching solutions.

New innovative solutions such as mycoremediation could play an essential role in rehabilitating California, but it is not necessarily a complete solution in itself and more solutions could spring up from grassroots sources as they have with recent mycoremediation efforts.

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