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In the Wake of Fire, Scorched Soil Threatens Natural Habitat

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The three largest wildfires in San Diego County burned nearly 300,000 acres. More than 1,600 homes were destroyed. One of the tragedies visible after the fires is the destruction of wildlife habitat. KPBS Environmental Reporter Ed Joyce tells us about the toll on nature from the wildfires.

I'm near Ramona, an area scorched by the Witch fire, walking over terrain usually dense with a variety of shrubs and plants collectively called chaparral. But the wildfires have changed the natural habitat.

Also here are two U.S. Forest Service scientists. They're part of the BEAR team: The Burned Area Emergency Response Team.

Forest Service Botanist Karen Wiese is assessing the damage to vegetation.

Wiese : If I find a population of rare plants that's been so totally burned or there's noxious weeds potentially burned area, then I might prescribe something and we might get some quick emergency funds to do some remediation.

Reporter : So we're within the perimeter of the Witch Fire in the Cleveland National Forest. What have you seen in this particular section?

Wiese : I have seen some severely burned soil, some burned areas. I, we've been over by Sutherland Dam on the west side of the fire and mostly what I observed was low-to-moderate burned soils. The soils were still hydrophilic, meaning that they still absorb water. But over here we're finding some soils that might be hard to absorb water so that when it rains they might not get into the root zone or into the area where seeds could sprout.

The lost vegetation means several endangered species -- the California spotted owl, Coastal cactus wren, and California gnatcatcher -- among others, may disappear completely from this area.

Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Anne Poopatanapong : You know some of these places that we're looking at was occupied by various threatened and endangered species. And my part of this assessment is to figure out if these threatened and endangered species are still going to persist here or not. And if the fire was so severe enough that the habitat doesn't exist. Like right here we're looking at gnat-catcher habitat. And it's an endangered species. And I'm trying to figure out you know, is this habitat going to recover in time for the birds to come back or you know is it not a good place for them to nest next spring.

It usually takes at least ten years for the chaparral to recover from wildfire. This same area was burned just four years ago. What remains is a mix of sparse, immature chaparral and non-native noxious weeds -- plants that don't provide food and cover for wildlife.

David Hogan is with the Center for Biological Diversity . He says the fires have radically changed the vegetation that covers much of San Diego County.

Hogan : And even if you care nothing for nature you probably still care about your water supply or water quality or air quality. At least I hope so because these are the things that we breathe and drink. And that's why these fires are still so important because of how much land they've burned and how much natural vegetation that's been removed that used to protect the air quality and protect the water quality by protecting soils. And today those soils are exposed and causing and will cause a lot of air pollution and a lot of water quality degradation.

Hogan says the non-native grasses that take over in these areas are more flammable -- and more dangerous -- to people than the chaparral. He says there are too many subdivisions in fire prone areas. Hogan says without a change in land use policies, what he calls the horrible cycle of loss and destruction from wildfires, will continue to hurt people and nature.

Ed Joyce, KPBS News.

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