Carrie Kahn, NPR
Robert Fisher, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, stands at the site of a spring — now covered by debris and ash — where the Santa Ana speckled dace used to swim.
Robert Fisher, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, stands at the site of a spring — now covered by debris and ash — where the Santa Ana speckled dace used to swim. Carrie Kahn, NPR
Adam Backlin/Courtesy USGS
A mountain yellow-legged frog.
A mountain yellow-legged frog. Adam Backlin/Courtesy USGS
Tim E. Hovey/Courtesy USGS
This steelhead trout was collected in San Mateo Creek in the southern Santa Ana Mountains to collect a fin clip for genetic analysis. The fish was then released. It is closely related to the Harding Canyon population of rainbow trout.
This steelhead trout was collected in San Mateo Creek in the southern Santa Ana Mountains to collect a fin clip for genetic analysis. The fish was then released. It is closely related to the Harding Canyon population of rainbow trout. Tim E. Hovey/Courtesy USGS
Ethan Fisher/Courtesy USGS
The Santa Ana speckled dace had no chance of survival after the California wildfires, according to Adam Backlin, a biologist with the USGS.
The Santa Ana speckled dace had no chance of survival after the California wildfires, according to Adam Backlin, a biologist with the USGS. Ethan Fisher/Courtesy USGS
Scientists in southern California are still counting the victims from last fall's massive wildfires, which destroyed more than $1 billion worth of property.
Now it's clear that the fires and subsequent mudslides also wiped out populations of native fish and amphibians. And efforts are under way to save some of the creatures that are still left.
Adam Backlin is a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and an expert on California's ecology.
He explains that the wildfires burn vegetation off the steep hillsides, so when the rains arrive a few weeks later, they create mudslides where the debris flows quickly through the canyons.
"An aquatic species really has no chance in those situations," he says.
Such was the fate this winter of the Santa Ana speckled dace — a fish about the size of a minnow — as well as the Harding Canyon trout and the Arroyo toad.
Their habitats were destroyed by debris that washed down from the upper canyons shortly after the blazes.
"It's a sad story because we weren't able to do anything in time; partly these are unplanned events," says Robert Fisher, another biologist with the USGS. "So now that they are happening more regularly — every four years it seems like — we need to have a plan in place to save them."
Fire and flooding have long been part of Southern California's ecology. But as people and homes move deeper into the national forests and fires burn more fiercely and frequently, biologists say species can't recover like they used to.
Take the case of the California native mountain yellow-legged frog. There are only eight populations of the critically endangered species left in Southern California.
About two years ago, USGS biologists rescued 80 mountain yellow-legged tadpoles from a burned-out region of the San Bernardino Mountains and brought them to the San Diego Zoo's conservation facility.
Frank Santana, a research assistant at the zoo, says that the frogs are getting so big now that the facility is running out of room for them.
"We started off with four tanks and had to add four more. … We didn't think they would do so well," he says.
Santana says he hopes other zoos will take half of the frogs for a captive-breeding colony, and biologists will return the other half to their habitat in the local mountains — if another fire doesn't come through first.
Backlin says authorities need to do more to save California's threatened animals. He says officials know where the endangered species live. And they know where the mudslides will flow after a fire, since people are routinely evacuated from those areas.
"Forward planning up to this point has been for people and safety and loss of property and not for any natural resources.
"We haven't had any of this forward planning, and we have to start or we are going to start losing species pretty quickly," Backlin says, adding that he hopes such planning can be up and running before California's next fire season.