Developing fire-management strategies in southern California, particularly in coastal sage scrub and chaparral, is particularly difficult because the area is a biodiversity hotspot and supports a large number of threatened and endangered species. Guidelines for prescribed fires must minimize their effect on a wide array of species while simultaneously helping to prevent fires that might threaten lives and property. Such guidelines can be developed only with detailed information on species’ responses to fire and subsequent patterns of recovery. Yet in spite of the central role of fire in the southern California’s biology, few studies have addressed the responses of any vertebrate to fire, and little is known about how animals recover following fire or what interventions, if any, may be necessary to assist ecological recovery following fire.
Our team has two studies focused on understanding mammals’ responses to fire. One, in chaparral in the Cleveland National Forest, is examining how rodents and other small mammals, carnivores, and bats recover from fire, with a special emphasis on how proximity to unburned habitat and fire severity influence recovery. The other study, in coastal sage scrub in Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve, addresses rodents’ responses to fire, taking into account the influence of the abundance of exotic plants before and after fire.
Our results will ultimately aid the responsible authorities in designing guidelines for how to prepare for fire. The influence of fire severity on mammals’ recovery can be incorporated into considerations regarding fuel status and fire weather before a fire breaks out. The temporal and spatial patterns of mammal recovery can be used to guide minimum fire intervals as well as maximum fire sizes in plans for controlled fires. The effects of the abundance of exotic plants, which may be enhanced by frequent fire, can be used to guide postfire management interventions to assist recovery. As a whole, the information resulting from these studies will aid planning for fire management with the minimum effect on southern California’s mammals.