How Last Year's Massive Woolsey Fire In Southern California Impacted Wildlife
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The 2018 fire season in California was one of the deadliest and most destructive on record. More than a million and a half acres burned. The Woolsey Fire in Southern California destroyed hundreds of human homes and devastated the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area - a critical wildlife habitat. Dr. Seth Riley is a wildlife ecologist with the National Park Service there. He joins us from KCLU in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Dr. Riley, thanks so much for being with us.
SETH RILEY: Good to be with you.
SIMON: Six months later, give us some idea of how much damage the fire did and especially to the animals who live there.
RILEY: Yeah, so one thing about the Woolsey Fire that was really impressive was just the sheer size of it - three times larger than the biggest fire to affect the Santa Monicas ever before. And it burned over 40% of the natural area within the Santa Monica Mountains. So it really - it really had a huge effect, and we're continuing to see those effects even six months later. For example, we've been following mountain lions in the park for 17 years or so, and we're continuing to see they - as soon as the fire occurred, we saw them stay largely out of that area. They would pass through it still once in a while, but, even six months later, they are mostly not using it.
SIMON: What - what has happened to the woodrats?
RILEY: One of the groups of animals that get especially affected by the fire itself is the smaller animals, so small mammals and rabbits and rodents. And one species that we think gets especially affected is woodrats because they build these 5 to 6 foot tall houses made out of sticks, which are amazing structures, and they live in them literally for generations. But the problem is their strategy when they're threatened is to run to their house. And it's a big house made of sticks. And so, of course, when the fire comes through, they really get hammered. Not only do we think there's really bad mortality for animals, especially woodrats, but then it's very hard for them to recover because all the vegetation is gone. Their houses are gone, and then it's hard to rebuild them. And that's an animal that's very important prey for coyotes, for bobcats. They also do a lot of seed dispersal. So we think they're an important part of the system that is really majorly affected.
SIMON: Did I hear that you found some bobcat kittens recently?
RILEY: We did actually. Yeah, so it was one of these bobcats who, apparently, completely had to move her home range from a totally burned area to a less burned area. She had a litter of four kittens that we were able to document. It was interesting, actually, because it was in a backyard, so we had to contact the people and make sure they were OK with us going in there and counting the kittens and marking them. But it was - that was good news that even in the face of this disaster we had that reproduction. And, of course, bobcat kittens are entertaining and cute.
SIMON: How's the recovery going?
RILEY: One thing that's been positive is we had a huge rain year this year, and that has definitely helped. And I'm not as much of an expert on the vegetation, but our native vegetation is coming back. We've had amazing flowers. And one thing that's definitely helped in some of our stream systems - the streams get often completely filled in with debris and amphibians, like newts or threatened red-legged frogs, that we're trying to reintroduce to the park. They're breeding habitat gets completely lost. But with all the rains that we've had, that has helped wash out some of that debris flow. So I think one issue is the massive size of this fire. So we're actually starting a project where we're going to use remote cameras throughout the fire area to see how long does it take different species to come back and make it into the burned areas.
SIMON: Seth Riley is the branch chief of wildlife at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Thank you so much for being with us.
RILEY: Oh, thank you so much.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.