In recent months San Mateo County Parks has collaborated with CAL FIRE to reduce fire fuel in Huddart, Wunderlich, and Quarry parks. These projects have provided an immediate safety benefit to neighboring communities by reducing the potential spread of wildfire and opening routes crucial for evacuation and emergency response. But did you know that fire fuel reduction also has long-term ecological benefits?
It may not be obvious at first. Treated areas, known as “shaded fuel breaks,” will initially look dramatically different. While healthy, mature trees have been preserved, young trees, saplings, and other plants in the understory (the layer of vegetation near to the ground) have been removed, leaving a much more open landscape. A park visitor might be left scratching her head: how is this good for a forest?
The benefit comes from how the forest will now be able to regrow. The first rains of winter will bring a flourish of native grasses and wildflowers, which will quickly fill in and compose a new ground cover. From the roots that have remained underground shrubby plants will re-sprout. Native species such as coyote brush and manzanita will thrive in the extra sunlight and decreased competition for space and resources. Within three years we’ll see mature shrubs and a landscape that is verdant but less packed with vegetation than before.
This lower density is key. Past fire prevention efforts have hindered the positive effect that naturally occurring wildfires have on forest ecosystems. As a result, the forest has been allowed to grow unnaturally dense, with trees of a few dominant species standing closely together. This increases the potential for fast-burning wildfires and for forest diseases to spread, while also diminishing biodiversity.
Biodiversity is the hallmark of a healthy, resilient ecosystem. For thousands of years before European settlement, the Ohlone periodically burned regions of the landscape in order to enhance biodiversity. This practice, which has a similar effect to creating shaded fuel breaks, produced the surpluses of various seeds, nuts, and acorns, as well as various animal species, that allowed the Ohlone to successfully forage and sustain themselves.
In a biodiverse landscape various plant communities share space. Habitats like grass, scrub, and forest, mingle together. The edges between these patches of habitat provide hunting opportunities for raptors, such as hawks and owls, who watch for rodents moving between burrows in deep thickets and less dense grassland. Larger mammals, like deer, are able to move and graze freely. The forest becomes a more active, varied place, where many species can exist in equilibrium with each other.
Over the coming years, our natural resource management staff will continue to monitor and manage these important areas. (You’ll be able to help with photo monitoring, too, by using photo posts within the park and sending us your pictures!) As the forest grows back, we’ll be selectively removing plants, leaving islands of vegetation. These areas of lower density vegetation will continue to function fire-safe buffers, but they will also live on as part of a richer, healthier forest.
Learn more about what San Mateo County Parks is doing to foster ecosystem health and community safety