UPDATE 1/12: This story has been updated to reflect that “Ventura County Fish & Wildlife Services” should be U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and that they do not respond to calls regarding large animals.
As the hillsides transform and reflect a new normal post-Thomas Fire, so too do the wildlife, plant life and environment that once called the brush home.
Sean Anderson, Ph.D., and his team of student researchers at California State University, Channel Islands, launched a program in 2007 that, since the Thomas Fire, has shifted focus from mapping wildlife corridors to surveying how the Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties environment has and will shift — and the outlook isn’t so good.
Anderson and his team began looking at “ecological fragmentation” via the impact that roads have on the ecosystem, building a large dataset featuring the many roads that cut through the Los Padres and through both Ventura and Santa Barbara county communities. Through observation (i.e., driving around), for instance, along Highway 33 and the 150 pre-Thomas Fire, the team would find on average of one to three dead animals ranging in size from squirrel to raccoon in a 10-mile stretch.
Post-fire, Anderson says, that number has increased by several times over, due to the fact that animals have to travel much farther to find food and shelter.
“A rabbit might have typically gone a couple hundred yards around an area; now they’ll go for five, six times that far to see whatever is left,” said Anderson. “So we see a spike in road kill in the immediate wave of the fire.”
Anderson points to the 2013 Camarillo Springs Fire as an example of what a post-fire environment looks like in the era of rapidly accelerating climate change.
The hillsides near the CSU, Channel Islands, campus have yet to return to their pre-Springs Fire form, though the area alongside the small stream that runs parallel to campus has recovered, says Anderson. Surveys conducted by his students show that plant life and wildlife on the hillsides have yet to recover going on five years later.
Small animals such as mice and rabbits have found it harder to re-establish themselves with no ground cover. Larger animals that prey on them have not returned as a result. The Channel Islands campus used to play host to 10 or more barn owls; now, two call the campus their residence.
A rare succulent that only grew on the western side of the Santa Monica Mountains was nearly wiped out by the Springs Fire and its recovery is doubtful, according to Anderson’s research. A succulent of the Dudleya species, with over 20,000 pre-fire, now numbers in the hundreds.
With the destruction of habitat comes an increased chance that humans will come into contact with wildlife, as sightings of displaced animals have increased. Anderson and his team have created an interactive map in which residents can drop a virtual pin where they have seen an animal, living or otherwise, for inclusion in his statistics. (Visit http://bit.ly/firekill).
As far as what to do if you should come across a bobcat under a bush, or a coyote in your hammock, Brian Bray, supervising animal control officer with Ventura County Animal Services, says that it depends.
“We don’t want people to make contact with wildlife, and a lot of times they’ll go away on their own,” said Bray. “If it’s a larger animal, calll . . . local law enforcement so we can go out and assess the situation.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, addressing concerns about how the Thomas Fire has impacted rare wildlife in our area, says that “when the habitat returns, the wildlife will return. In some cases, native plants even require fire regeneration as part of their life cycle.”
But Anderson says that as the fires burn hotter, and rain becomes sparse — noting that Ventura County is the only place in California still in severe drought — we shouldn’t expect that the hillsides will quickly return to what they had been. Rather, it may be time to get used to a new normal.
“What I think is very likely to happen with the Thomas Fire is that the vegetation will recover very slowly, very slowly. We’re going to see a shift to more weedy species, less shrubs and trees, and then, consequently, the small-bodied animals will not recover very quickly,” said Anderson. “This notion that we have a fire and then the rains come and things recover, that’s not a given anymore.”
Anderson will speak on how wildfires affect our ecosystem during the Ventura Land Trust’s “No Doubting Thomas: The Impacts, Management, and World after the Thomas Fire” presentation, on Thursday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m. at the Poinsettia Pavilion, 3451 Foothill Road, Ventura. For more information, visit www.venturalandtrust.org/events.