Regrowth and Resilience
By Mark Bibbo and Alexis LaFever-Jackson
Many Californians vividly remember the severe wildfires that burned through the state in these past few years. The SCU and CZU complex fires in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties and the Dolan and Colorado fires in Monterey County burned across a diversity of vegetation types with varying degrees of intensity. From a human perspective, these fires were catastrophic—destroying homes and communities and taking lives. But fire is as much a part of California as are earthquakes, and a necessary process for many habitats to maintain heterogeneity and diversity.
Through two generous grants from the Mary A. Crocker Trust and the California State Parks Foundation, CNPS Vegetation program staff are collecting data to assess the resiliency of plant communities on state park lands that experienced wildfires in 2020, 2021, and 2022 in Monterey, San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties. The data and findings of our research will help us document key plant biodiversity in post-fire landscapes and threats to this biodiversity. We’ll denote land management strategies to protect sensitive plant areas, such as where to continue long-term monitoring, where to prioritize seed collections, or which areas will benefit from weed removal or other restoration efforts.
Specifically, data collected on state park lands will assist park ecologists in developing proactive management and restoration plans. We will use newly developed post-fire sampling protocols to carry out our data collection. And we are working with volunteers from local CNPS chapters, students, and early career botanists to train others in utilizing these new sampling protocols and contribute to our post-fire monitoring. Following are some highlights from our field work:
Large portions of eastern Santa Clara County within the footprint of the SCU fire burned lightly or in a patchwork mosaic. In such areas of varying fire intensity we observed the regrowth of a seedbank that has not been observed in many years. This includes herbaceous species that we know require fire to germinate, including fire-following species such as whispering bells (Emmenanthe penduliflora) and golden eardrops (Ehrendorferia chrysantha).
In mid-May 2022, State Parks Ecologist Mason Hyland, along with CNPS Vegetation Ecologists Mark Bibbo and Alexis LaFever-Jackson surveyed post-fire vegetation in the 2020 SCU complex fire that burned large sections of Henry Coe State Park. In a spot with a previous overstory of interior live oak (Quercus wislizeni), we also found golden eardrops (E. chrysantha) in great abundance.
Alexis LaFever-Jackson sampled a post-fire stand of maritime chaparral on the Big Sur coast in an area of the 2022 Colorado Fire. This stand contains the southernmost population of bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax). Despite its name, bear grass is not a grass, but rather a beautiful member of the Melanthiaceae, or Corn Lily Family.
As we walked through the now bright understory of the redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) forest in Big Basin State Park in May 2022, we came across carpets of redwood seedlings vigorously germinating two years after the CZU Fire Complex. While the forest looks vastly different than it had prior to the fire—especially with clearing out understory canopy vegetation, the open canopy allows new growth to emerge.
The resilience of Coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) forests is phenomenal, with trees resprouting along the main trunks and bases of trunks. The understory also responds with resprouting shrubs and trees such as toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus). Plus, the forest floor is opened and fosters a seed bed for post-fire seedlings to flourish, which include redwood seedlings and a variety of shrubs and herbs.
At Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve, we saw skeletons of knobcone pine (Pinus attenuata) among blooming lupine (Lupinus albifrons), yerba santa (Eriodictyon californica), and warty leaf blue blossom (Ceanothus papillosus). This highlights the wonderful diversity of shrubs that are returning after the 2020 CZU fire.
It’s heartening to see this regrowth and resilience. Our Vegetation team will continue to keep you posted on what else we find in the field!