San Clemente Times

Ecologists from the University of California, Irvine (UCI), Center for Environmental Biology and San Diego State University have tested the resilience of native plant communities when faced with wildfire, drought and invasion by non-native species, according to a press release from UCI.
The research comes after a rip-roaring year of wildfires around Orange County, including in San Clemente where one 750-plus-acre fire came close to homes and the San Clemente/Dana Point Animal Shelter in July. Firefighters also had their hands full farther north in Orange County, causing massive evacuations of stables and relocation of horses to San Juan Capistrano.

Other major fires, like the Thompson fire, caused emergency situations and forced thousands of people to evacuate.

The research of species in fire zones, published in Ecosphere, determined whether Orange County plant communities recovered following the 2007 Santiago wildfire and the 2011-2015 California drought.

“The study was possible thanks to 10 years of vegetation monitoring funded by The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Communities Coalition,” the release stated. “Partnerships between academic institutions and land management organizations such as this provide valuable opportunities to monitor and evaluate data to help predict future outcomes of Orange County vegetation after extreme disturbances.”

Dr. Sarah Kimball (l.) and Priscilla Ta of the UCI Center for Environmental Biology working in the Baker Canyon area of the Santa Ana mountains as part of the center’s study on the resilience of plant communities in Orange County. Photo: Courtesy of UCI
Dr. Sarah Kimball, left, and Priscilla Ta of the UCI Center for Environmental Biology working in the Baker Canyon area of the Santa Ana mountains as part of the center’s study on the resilience of plant communities in Orange County. Photo: Courtesy of UCI

According to the release, researchers used data from areas of long-term vegetation to compare changes in native and non-native plant cover in burned and unburned areas as well as responses to drought in regions with different native shrub densities.
“They found that coastal sage scrub, the dominant native plant community in Southern California, was generally resilient to wildfire, reaching pre-burn cover within four years,” the release stated. “However, invasive non-native grasses increased in abundance in burned areas, suggesting long-term impacts of fire on native plants.”

The study found that native plants were overall resilient to drought, but areas with dense shrubs were more affected, which suggests drought conditions could have a negative impact. They also found that native wildflowers had the highest diversity in wet years that were preceded by dry years, suggesting they face less competition from invasive non-native grasses, which are also abundant in wet years.

“Our results demonstrated the resilience of native shrub cover to fires along with the susceptibility of dense native shrubs and native grasses to drought and increases in non-native species,” said Dr. Sarah Kimball, first author and researcher at the Center for Environmental Biology at UCI. “They also highlight that land monitoring efforts sponsored by institutions like The Nature Conservancy can help ecologists test hypotheses regarding long-term dynamics in community vegetation.”

“The data suggest that it may be helpful to remove non-native species during fire recover,” the release stated. “The data also shows that grasslands in Orange County are heavily invaded by non-native species, indicating that restoration of those areas should be a priority. As a follow-up to the study, experimental plots have now been set up to test whether removal of non-natives during the first few post-fire years will lead to lower non-native cover in burned areas.”

Study authors were Sarah Kimball, Megan Lulow, Travis E. Huxman and Kathleen Balazs with UC Irvine’s Center for Environmental Biology; Zachary Principe with The Nature Conservancy; and Spring Strahm and Doug Deutschmann with San Diego State University. The research was funded by The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Communities Coalition.

In other news, on Tuesday, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones announced a bill he supported to assist wildfire survivors underinsured after losing their home passed the state Senate. S.B. 894, authored by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-3, aims to help wildfire survivors and homeowners.

For information on the UCI School of Biological Sciences, visit www.bio.uci.edu.

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