How Will The Santa Monica Mountains Recover From The Woolsey Fire? We Asked A Scientist

A view of the devastation of the Woolsey Fire in the Santa Monica Mountains. (Courtesy National Park Service)

The National Park Service says 88 percent of its land in the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area was burned in the Woolsey Fire.

It's by far the largest fire in the history of the popular park.

NPS spokeswoman Kate Kuykendall previously described the area as a "moonscape" and photos from the burn zone give breathtaking scope to the devastation.

But while the fire was massive, the overall intensity was not particularly severe, according to John Tiszler, a plant ecologist for the Park Service who is coordinating recovery efforts at the park. "In the way that the shrubland burned, it wasn't atypical," he told us. He described the burning as "low to medium intensity."

That's not to say the park didn't suffer significant losses.

Tiszler, who has worked in the park for 22 years, said the blaze fire destroyed many trees, especially oaks in woodland areas, leaving only "skeletons." For many trees, hollowed over the years after surviving continuous fires, this was the last straw. They "just must have went up like a candle," he said. "It's just all gone."

THE PATH TO RESTORATION

Park Service plant ecologist John Tiszler documents new plants sprouting in the Santa Monica Mountains after the Woolsey Fire. (Courtesy National Park Service)

The initial response from the Park Service is sort of like "triage," Tiszler said. One of the more immediate, critical tasks for rangers and scientists will be the "early detection and suppression of invasive plants," he said.

Wildfires create opportunities for invasive species to "muscle out" native plants, Tiszler explained, which can have a lasting impact on the landscape and biodiversity in the mountains (more on that later). Park Service scientists are already seeing some of them sprouting from the scorched dirt.

NPS will also be replanting trees, but that work wouldn't get going for several more months as researchers assess the area after the rainy season.

"By late spring we should starts to get a sense of what's coming back and what isn't," Tiszler said.

A lot of work will go into keeping the park's many trails stable and safe so they can reopen to the public — and stay open. All that effort take time, he noted.

"It's a long-term commitment. It's not something that we can turn around in a year."

(Courtesy National Park Service)

WHAT WILL IT TAKE FOR THE REGION TO BOUNCE BACK?

That's a hard question with no quantifiable answer, but in a general sense there are two things the land needs: time and the right amount of rain.

We've been getting a fair amount of the latter these past couple weeks, but that can be a "double-edged sword," Kuykendall said.

Too much rain too close together could cause mud and debris flows, washing out seeds and new sprouts. But if we don't get enough, germinating seeds might not make it.

"If we kind of get the rains we've been seeing ... that could be very beneficial in terms of encouraging regrowth," Tiszler said, adding that one silver lining is the possible blooming of post-fire wildflowers, which "could be quite spectacular."

He was quick to point out that the effort humans can put into recovery "is miniscule" compared to what nature will have to do. And a major factor in how the environment will respond is the condition of the land before a fire.

Recent years of dry conditions aren't encouraging, but Tiszler said there's no simple way to predict how well the Santa Monica Mountains will recover.

"Nature is really complex and we look for models to simplify it, but ultimate there can always be surprises," he said.

WHO PAYS FOR RESTORATION AND HOW WILL THE MONEY BE SPENT?

The initial money for recovery efforts comes out of the Burned Area Emergency Response, or BAER plan, which kicks in as soon as 14 days after the start of a fire. That money comes from the U.S. Department of the Interior's emergency funds for fire suppression.

Tiszler said the key question officials will be asking is "what do we need to do to make our park land safe again?"

Based on that goal, one of the top priorities is emergency trail and soil stabilization to prevent possible flooding, erosion and landslides. Tiszler said there will also be increased storm patrols to look for rock falls and other hazards throughout the park.

Money will also be used to replace equipment and infrastructure lost to the fire, including remote cameras used to study wildlife and protective fencing. More than a mile of split rail fencing was destroyed in the fire, according to Tiszler.

The Woolsey Fire burned 88 percent of land in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, according to the National Park Service. (Courtesy National Park Service)

Another potential problem is that the the park has become more accessible, so funds might also pay for extra law enforcement staffing to patrol the park.

BAER funds are designed to last a year and are then followed by up to four years of funds through the BAR program, or Burned Area Rehabilitation. That program aids efforts to grow new trees and plants and repair or replace NPS facilities.

BAR funds are determined by the executive branch and are competitive, Tiszler said. That means local park officials will have to make a case for getting them at a time when other national parks have also suffered devastating fires and seeking aid. The Department of the Interior, which oversees the Park Service, typically gets about $20 million to disperse among its land management bureaus, according to Tiszler.

So, the NPS' continuing role in helping the park recover will be determined by how much the DOI requests and receives from Congress, how much of that the DOI gives NPS and how much of that NPS gives to our local park.

Tiszler said another source of funding could come through a special appropriations request to Congress, which would help the park repair and replace structures lost in the fire, which other funding won't cover.

The park "lost a significant number of buildings," Tiszler said, including a research facility, ranger housing and restrooms.

A collections building that housed much of the park's significant archives also burned. Workers were able to save some items, but most of the paper materials, including historical photos, charts and maps, were destroyed.

"We lost a lot of the park history there," Tiszler said.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM PAST FIRES

Tiszler has witnessed four major fires in the Santa Monica Mountains during his time with the park, most recently the Springs Fire, which burned roughly 12 percent of park land in May 2013.

"The Springs Fire was a bit of a disaster in terms of vegetation," he said, describing a "huge diminishment of habitat value" in the years after the blaze.

Native shrublands were lost and replaced by annual grasses, which changes the "structural complexity" of the region, Tiszler explained. Wildlife like lizards and snakes that lived among certain plants can't always adapt to the new landscape, and that reduces biodiversity in the mountain range.

"Overly frequent fires can cause that type of conversion," he said. "It's worrisome that if we stay in the drought pattern... it could have a huge impact on the recovery of the native plants."

There's no simple solution for recovery in the Santa Monica Mountains, but two things it will definitely need are time and the right amount of rain. (Courtesy National Park Service)

CAN'T THE PARK SERVICE JUST THROW OUT A BUNCH OF SEED BOMBS?

After the Woolsey Fire tore through park land, some local nature lovers wondered on Facebook if NPS officials planned to use seed bombs before a storm system came through the area. Some even urged locals near the burn zone to hike out and disperse some on their own.

But Park Service scientists say that while it's great people want to help, seed bombs aren't the way to do it. First off, many don't include native plants, which means potentially invasive species could sprout. And even if they are labeled as being native, that doesn't necessarily mean they grow in the park, Tiszler said.

Second, "seed bombs won't make a big impact," he said, given the vast amount of burned land. "You're not going to find enough seeds to put out there."

Tiszler added that native chaparral and coastal sage scrub should have a "sufficient seed bank to provide for strong regrowth."

SO, WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP?

First, "don't throw seed bombs," Tiszler repeated.

Right now, there's not much the public can do, but the Park Service is putting out the call for future volunteers to help plant new trees, maintain local plant life and control invasive species.

You can fill out this online form and NPS officials will start reaching out in early 2019.

To help local wildlife affected by the fire, NPS officials recommend donating to nonprofit rescue organizations that rehabilitate injured animals.

UPDATES:

Friday, Dec. 7, 12:25 p.m.: This article was updated to clarify how the park will receive BAR funds and with information about the NPS structures lost in the fire.

This article was originally published at 3:51 p.m. Thursday.


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