Hope is Green and Soggy in the Sierra Nevada
August 28, 2022
Written by Ryan Burnett, Point Blue’s Sierra Nevada Group Director
It was July 28, 2021, I was sitting in my living room overlooking Lake Almanor in the Northern Sierra Nevada, having spent the morning raking fir needles and covering attic vents, I was hunched over the air purifier sucking in as much fresh air as I could get. It was 3 weeks into the Dixie Fire, and the sky, much like what the San Francisco Bay Area experienced in the fall of 2020, had looked an eerie orange for weeks from wildfire smoke with little relief. I was alone, having sent my family out of harm’s way the week before. That night, as the evacuation sirens blared, I had had enough. I packed up as much as I could fit in our Toyota Corolla, including my kids’ two parakeets, and drove through the night for cleaner air in southern California. From there I spent the next month watching as the growing fire engulfed most of the Upper Feather River watershed, including many of our long-term Point Blue study sites. Before it was extinguished by the record rainfalls, the Dixie Fire would burn nearly 1 million acres, the largest in Sierra Nevada history and second largest in California. It threatened our home, our Sierra field station, and my community.
For the past 15 years we have studied the effects of fire on forest birds, bats, and vegetation throughout the Sierra Nevada (see studies linked below). I have spent years in burned forests observing how they change because of fire and documenting how wildlife respond. So, I had a pretty good idea, based on the fire severity maps that came out over the winter, what much of the forest in our watershed would look like. No matter how it burned there would be life in these forests in the coming Spring whether it was Olive-sided Flycatchers taking advantage of new habitat edges, Black-backed Woodpeckers moving into patches of high severity to eat beetle larvae in fire killed trees, or Hermit Warblers seeking out the remnant green patches of forest.
After I learned that my house was safe from the fire, my thoughts focused on how the many meadows we have studied, restored, or were in the process of restoring had fared.
Sierra Meadows, emerald jewels of the upper elevations of the Sierra and southern Cascades are ecosystems workhorses. They provide many services including purifying water, storing carbon, and supporting a tremendous amount of biodiversity. As the climate warms, and dry seasons become hotter and drier, the importance of these montane wetlands is likely to increase. Wet meadows, with their shallow water tables remain vibrant and productive well into our dry summer months when the surrounding landscapes desiccate. Our 20-year dataset on the use of meadows by birds at the end of the breeding season has elucidated the importance of wet meadows to most of the Sierra Nevada avian community. These wet oases act as refugia during the dry season, especially to young inexperienced birds that have just set out on their own.
Unfortunately, most mountain meadows in California are in a degraded state, reducing the many benefits they provide. This degradation stems from a long history of resource extraction by western colonizers who first utilized meadows as forage for dairies starting in the 19th Century. As wood became the primary resource of interest, meadows were used as convenient transportation routes – flat ground to build roads and railroads through to transport timber. These alterations led to erosion of stream channels impacting the hydrologic function and resulting in drying of many meadows.
Point Blue is leading a broad scale effort to restore the vitality of these important places and conserve many from being converted to other uses such as housing development, golf courses, and reservoirs. Through our leadership, and the incredible work of so many of our partners, the Sierra Meadows Partnership is working to restore and protect 30,000 acres of Sierra Meadows by 2030.
While our partnership is well aware of the impacts of overgrazing and poorly thought-out stream crossings and diversions, the threat of fire on meadows is emergent. As fire roars back to being the dominant agent of landscape change in the Sierra Nevada, understanding how fire impacts meadows is critical to achieving our meadow conservation goals.
After a winter in Southern California, I returned to Lake Almanor and the northern Sierra in April of 2022 for my 23rd Summer in the Sierra to continue our long-term study of meadows. I was eager to see how they all faired from the Dixie Fire. The first meadow I visited was Rock Creek in the watershed I lived in, just a stone’s throw from my house. Point Blue has been working with The Collin’s Pine Company, who owns the land, Sierra Institute, and Plumas Corporation to restore Rock Creek meadow using a climate-smart approach. We had removed an enormous number of conifer trees that had encroached the meadow, due to the altered hydrology and suppression of fire over the last century. We were about ready to restore the hydrologic function when the Dixie Fire chased us out. Our partners had gone back in as soon as the smoke had cleared and implemented the hydrologic restoration.
With a sense of eagerness to learn something new, I arrived at the meadow in late April on dreary wet day. The kind of day that makes everything seem like it is in a black and white movie. I was taken aback to see the upper part of the meadow, which had been rather intact with a maze of channels and willows, nearly barren. The meadow soils were an ashen gray and black skeletons of the once vibrant willows and aspen were all that remained. While the vegetation had been hit hard, I noticed the hydrologic restoration work. There were newly built riffles, a shallow often rocky part of a stream where water is rough, and they were doing their job. Water, even in this drought year, was spreading out of the channel and soaking into the floodplain.
I returned to the site in early June to conduct the first bird survey. I wasn’t expecting much as the habitat was all but gone when I last visited in late April. To my amazement, in 38 days the meadow had transformed. Where there was once barren soil, there sprung a sea of chartreuse – sedge, willow, and aspen roots, still intact, accessed the shallow water table and were pumping all their energy into lush new growth. Some of the willows had grown 2 feet in a month. Many of the bird species were still around, finding cover in the new growth or even dead trees that had been knocked over during fire suppression efforts. I realized then that Rock Creek was going to be just fine and sooner than I had even imagined. The restoration efforts had allowed the meadow to make good use of the limited runoff in this prolonged drought.
As I visited other meadows, I started noticing a pattern. Meadows that had intact hydrology before the fire seemed to have burned at much lower severity and even the forest that surrounded those meadows tended to have more green trees surviving. They seemed to have functioned as a fire break reducing the intensity with which the fire was burning. Soils in the wettest areas didn’t burn and many willows were still intact or those that had burned were resprouting much as I had observed in Rock Creek. I shared my observations with others in the Sierra Meadows Partnership and they had similar stories to tell. Wet meadows with intact hydrology–in particular, many that had already been restored–appeared to be far more resilient to burning during the fire. It’s not rocket science to figure out why. Healthy meadows are wet, and fire and water, well, you know.
It appeared that even during a historic drought these meadows were able to hold enough water to resist burning or at least burning hot. This was important new information. Not only do wet meadows appear to be far more resilient to fire but when they do burn, they seem to recover far more quickly. Wet soils were insulating a network of roots ready to spring anew.
As more of the Sierra burns and at higher severity these meadows may provide habitat refugia for species capable of breeding in both upland habitats, such as forest and chaparral, and wet meadows. This includes many of the shrub associated birds such as MacGillivray’s, Yellow, and Nashville Warblers, Fox Sparrow, Dusky Flycatcher, and many others. But I also observed mature forest species like Yellow-rumped and Hermit Warbler foraging in fresh willow growth in the middle of meadows. As meadow vegetation recovers from surviving roots in saturated soils, they can grow fast and recover suitable habitat conditions in a couple of years whereas conifer forest will take far longer having to regenerate from seed.
We were unable to complete our 22nd year of capturing birds in meadows in early August as the willows in our long-term study sites were not yet tall enough to conceal our 10-foot-tall nets but I am confident they will be by next August. When we do return to these meadows, I expect them to be full of juvenile birds seeking out refugia as they have for millennia. We will continue to work to increase the pace and scale of meadow restoration to ensure meadows continue to play the important role of helping species adapt to a changing climate and helping buffer the ecosystem from an increase in high severity fire.
We are living through a time of unprecedented environmental change. Climate driven extremes are straining our ecological systems. Ensuring our mountain meadows are functioning properly and protected from conversion is one of the key nature-based solutions that can buffer wildlife and human communities from these impacts. The solutions are out there. Our work is helping to uncover them. It’s up to us to invest in them.
Peer Reviewed and Other Publications on Point Blue Fire and Forests Studies
Can We Learn to Handle the Heat of Forest Fires? Audubon Magazine, 2015.
Recent drought may provide a glimpse of the future for the avian community in the Sierra Nevada. Ecological Applications, 2019.
Mixed Severity Fire Leads to Increased Bat Diversity in Fire Suppressed Sierra Nevada Forests. Scientific Reports, 2019.
Implications of large high-severity wildfire patches for bird diversity. Diversity & Distributions, 2021.