Increasingly frequent wildfires threaten California’s shrublands

California’s chaparral ecosystem is the state’s iconic shrub-dominant vegetation that covers broad areas of foothills stretching across the state but particularly southern California. Chaparral wilderness occupies more than 8.5 million acres and the drought-resistant and woody shrubs and as the California Chaparral Institute explained, provides essential protection against erosion, allows underground water supplies to recharge, moderates local climates, provides important habitat for an interesting assortment of animals. Yet because of the increasing frequency of major wildfires in California, these shrublands are coming further under threat. 

As the LA Times reported, frequent big fires mean that shrublands that would naturally burn at intervals of 30 to 60 years — or even a century or more — are sometimes torched at intervals of a decade or less. When that happens, resprouting species don’t have sufficient time to regrow. Non-sprouting shrubs can’t reach maturity and shower the ground with a new seed bank. Invaders can then take over in a process ecologists call type conversion. The U.S. Forest Service explained that steep slopes where chaparral ecosystems have converted to grasses and other herbaceous plants are more prone to soil slippage and slope failure during high-intensity rainstorms, likely due to decay of deep shrub roots. Additionally, when native species aren’t able to grow back, biodiversity declines and fire cycles accelerate. Re-establishment of chaparral shrubs after grass conversion is difficult and a topic of active research.

Why This Matters: Many Californians see chaparral wilderness as something that needs to be removed as it’s merely an inconvenience to landowners and seen as fuel for wildfires. But removing these native ecosystems has the opposite effect and actually makes wildfires more severe in the long run. The impact on California’s chaparrals is just one of the many effects of massive wildfires that we’re still learning about, and it’s a reminder that damage from fires doesn’t stop when the fire is extinguished. California and its diverse ecosystems will have a very long recovery after the last two years of wildfires, if it can recover at all before the next fire strikes.

Up Next

Miami Condo Collapse Raises Concerns of Flooding, Sea-Level Rise

Miami Condo Collapse Raises Concerns of Flooding, Sea-Level Rise

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer A condo collapse in Miami is prompting new conversations about the threats rising sea levels and flooding present to the nation’s infrastructure. Experts say that it’s too early to determine whether or not climate change contributed to the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers. But they also warn that as sea levels rise […]

Continue Reading 570 words
Tabasco Hot Sauce

Build Up Wetlands, Save The Hot Sauce

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer Louisiana loses almost a football field of land each day, caused by a combination of climate change-fueled sea level rise, reduced sediment flow from the Mississippi River, and the land gradually sinking. One area that’s not slipping underwater: Avery Island, the birthplace of Tabasco hot sauce that’s still the […]

Continue Reading 397 words
Florida Governor Backs Highway Extension Through Everglades Region

Florida Governor Backs Highway Extension Through Everglades Region

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and part of the state Cabinet have approved a highway extension spanning a portion of the Everglades. The move rejects a 2020 recommended order from Administrative Law Judge Suzanne Van Wyk, claiming that the project was incompatible with continued efforts to establish protections in the region. Legal challenges are […]

Continue Reading 558 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.