The July fire that torched 62 acres of brush at the Bolsa Chica wetlands — and stopped just short of homes — could prove a blessing in disguise.
Most of the area was vegetated with non-native species — mostly Mediterranean grasses — that were remnants of ranching and farming operations dating back to the 1800s. Environmentalists have long wanted to restore the area, known as the lower bench of the Bolsa Chica Mesa, to its indigenous state but had replanted just four acres when the fire ignited.
It turns out that the blaze could help that replanting process. Not only was non-native growth largely eliminated, but the ground cover thatch of dead non-native plants that helped suppress native plant growth is also largely gone.
“The fire creates opportunity,” said Kim Kolpin, executive director of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust. “The non-native plants are far more aggressive and grow through the thatch. The fire, by eliminating much of the thatch, may make it easier to seed the area and for some natives to spread. The ash of the non-natives is a good amendment to the soil and may also be helpful.”
The land trust has already begun working with UC Irvine’s Center of Environmental Biology and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop a restoration plan for the lower bench.
Restoration of native habitat is important because many of those plants have been lost to development. Also, the natural habitat is essential to a number of animals, including the endangered California gnatcatcher, which nests almost exclusively in coastal sage scrub.
“Non-native plants do not create the same habitat and do not provide the same food and shelter resources,” Kolpin said.
Nearly three months after the July 26 fire, Orange County Fire Authority investigators are still trying to determine the cause, according to authority spokesman Capt. Ben Gonzalez.
“There could be many factors,” he said. “There are a lot of moving pieces.”
But Kolpin and others see a simple answer as likely, given the location where the blaze started on the breezy summer Sunday afternoon.
“Our gut says somebody was smoking and dropped a cigarette,” Kolpin said. “It started right by the trail and there are no homeless encampments there.”
The fire was extinguished before it reached houses — and before it reached the trees along the south edge of the lower bench, where birds nest. The loss of animal life to the flames is thought to have been minimal.
“All that has been found are a few snakes, lizards and rodents — rabbits and ground squirrels — which perished,” Kolpin said. “Since many are small, we will never know the exact number. There is a high probability that we lost a number of insects as well.”
The cost of the restoration project has not been determined and the work will likely be done in phases “over the course of years,” she said. Beside obtaining funding, the land trust faces the issue of non-native species returning. But the fire will make that return less of a threat if studies determine that non-native seeds in the soil were also destroyed.
Source: Orange County Register