Valley and rough fires burning across California leave environmental changes in their wake 

The fires that scarred the state of California left more than smoke and crumbling trees; they left a lasting effect on the environment of California with them. Burning 76,067 acres of the Hume Lake, Napa and Sonoma Counties alone, these fires, though 100 percent contained, have caused irrevocable damage to California’s environmental status; a legacy of devastation lasting longer than the less than 25 days they endured.

From the remains of the fires, invasive weeds and grasses – some being the multiflora rose, common buckthorn, gray dogwood, Asian honeysuckles, Japanese
barberry, Scotch broom, and catbrier grasses – could potentially crowd out native shrubs and low-lying plants, increasing the erosion rate of the forest floor because of their shallow roots, leading to more frequent future fires. After the blazes, some of the young shrubs may not regrow, due to their lack of maturity and ability to drop seeds, causing more flammable invasive plants to take root. If a fire recurs in an area devastated by the Valley fires within five to 10 years, the hardy native shrubs may not get the chance to mature and create seeds, due to the rapid germination rate of the weed-like grasses.

“If you want to get rid of native shrubland, this is how you do it,” Rick Halsey, a homeowner in Escondido, told CNN News, as he watched the fires burn dangerously near his home. “The problem now is you get a habitat covered by exotic weeds, and that can regenerate every single year and carry a fire every single year.”

Along with California’s plant life, small birds, rabbits, and other ground or tree – dwelling
animals dependant on the Valley’s rapidly disappearing vegetation native to California will also struggle to maintain their footing, while some endangered species may find themselves trapped on increasingly jeopardized islands for refuge. With the smoke of the fires often resulting in air quality five to 15 times worse than normal, these animals and plants alike are definitely going to have difficulties.

Despite the grim symptoms the fires have wrought upon California, Cal Fire firefighter Mike Williams hopes for a speedy recovery for the Valley.

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“Because of the drought, most (of) the plants were very dry, so the fire burned just about everything in its path.” —Mike Williams, Cal Fire Fighter

“Because of the drought, most (of) the plants were very dry, so the fire burned just about everything in its path,” Williams said, “new plants will grow back, (but) it will just take a longer time for it to look like it did before the fire because it was burned to a bare landscape”

Though it may take years to undo the damage done to California, not all of the fires’ effects end on a bad note. The environment has a way of rejuvenating itself in the face of fire, in more ways than one. California’s natural landscape is geared to profit from periodic fires. Many of native Californian plants actually need fires to germinate. Pine forests around California may see a comeback in the future, as the fires can be necessary for the rejuvenation of the pines.

But wildfires are on the rise, in both frequency and intensity, in part because of hotter, drier conditions, due to current events such as California’s drought state. In 1981-84, the average rainfall added up to 32 inches; in 2011-14, the average rainfall has severely dropped to 15 inches, leaving the area seriously parched. Dry, hard ground affected by the drought, as well as dead trees, only enables the fire to burn longer and with more intensity. Lack of humidity only adds to the risk.

Last summer, as many as 110,000 dead trees were recorded in a given amount of acreage in California. This summer, 12.5 million dead trees were found in that same spot of land. This drastic increase in dead trees equals the same increase in fire fuel.

Given these conditions, fire season has lasted longer than the norm. A generation ago, firefighters could expect the season to last no more than a couple of months. Fire season has increased over the last 40 years, however, starting out as 78 days and increasing to 143 days.

“I’ve got 30 years in, and in the last 10 years I have seen fire behavior that I had never seen in my entire career,” Capt. Ron Oatman, a public information officer for Cal Fire, told the New York Times.

“I think fires like this one will be more frequent,” Williams said regarding the Valley fire, “especially if the drought continues.”

However near fires seem in the future, there are ways to prevent such wildfires from occurring as frequently. Cultureofsafety.com lists five main causes of wildfires in California; campfires left alone, innapropriatly handled fireworks, yard waste-burning, cigarettes, and vehicle sparks. With a firm hold on the way we handle these things, most wildfires can be a thing of the past. Before starting a fire, there are four things to do beforehand to ensure your safety:
1. Comply with all local laws and regulations
2. Check the weather
3. Only use easily controlled locations for burning
4. Do not burn anything unusual or combustible

“A lot of the fires can be prevented, (and) education is a start for preventing fires, teaching the understanding of the dangers of wildfires and how easily the can get out of control.” Williams said.

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