Impact and Recovery Pattern of a Spring Fire on a Pacific Coast Marsh – Observations and Implications for Endangered Species

Friday, 18 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
Lauren N Brown, Katherine S Willis, Richard F Ambrose and Glen M MacDonald, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, United States
The flammability of California coastal marsh vegetation is highest in winter and spring when dominant high marsh plants such as Sarcocornia pacifica are dormant. With climate change the number of cool-season fires are increasing in the state, and marsh systems are becoming more vulnerable to fire disturbance. Very little information exists in peer-reviewed or grey literature on the presence of fire in Pacific Coast tidal marshes. In 1993, the Green Meadows fire in Ventura County, California burned a small portion of tidally influenced Sarcocornia­-dominated marsh at Point Mugu. After the May 2013 Springs Fire burned a similar portion of the salt marsh vegetation, we conducted a two-year vegetation recovery survey using transects of surface vegetation plots and MODIS derived NDVI remote sensing monitoring. Recovery during the first year was limited. Sixteen months into the recovery period, percent plant coverage reached an average of approximately 60% for all plots in the burned area, as opposed to an average of 100% in control plots, and remained at that level for the duration of the study. NDVI did not approach near pre-fire conditions until 19 months after the fire. While recovery may have been influenced by California’s current extreme drought conditions, the recurrence of fire and rate of recovery raise many important questions as to the role of fire in Pacific coast tidal marshes. For example, the lack of Salicornia cover over more than an entire breeding season would be detrimental to protected species such as Rallus obsoletus. Fire adds new vulnerabilities on critical tidal marsh habitat already taxed by the threat of sea-level rise, coastal squeeze and invasive species.