Ecology after the fire

The Claremont Colleges’ Robert J. Bernard Field Station—an academic resource for the Claremont Colleges and local community for decades—burned last week, leaving behind 17 acres of charred remains and numerous concerns over the resulting impact on environmental research. However, amid disaster, Claremont College faculty and students have found opportunity.

Academics have inundated the local field station following last week’s blaze, eager to take advantage of the opportunity to study in Claremont’s new fire ecology.

“The language people use when talking about fire tends to be words like disarray, damage and destruction, but what I’m arguing for is that this is in fact about creation, regeneration and growth,” said Char Miller, director of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College.

“Fire is a very creative force,” he continued. “It’s devastating to be sure, and thank God the LA County Fire Department knocked that blaze down so quickly, but now we have a wonderful educational opportunity. We have this living laboratory right in our backyard.”

On September 11, professors, students and Claremont residents lined the south side of Foothill Boulevard, across from the field station as fire crews and 2 Super Scoopers worked to contain the flames, sparked by a Golden State Water work crew. While discussions ranged from alarm to awe over the first responders’ coordinated effort, once the fire was contained Mr. Miller and colleagues found themselves shifting their thoughts to what  opportunities the fire presented, particularly in terms of studying the plant life. Much of the expanse of the Bernard Field Station’s 86 acres is comprised of coastal sage scrub, which has become increasingly scarce with the build-out of Los Angeles County.

“What the students in Claremont and faculty members have the chance to do is not just tell us about what happens here [at the field station], but about the whole ecosystem across the world,” Mr. Miller said. “This is really an unparalleled opportunity.”

Nancy Hamlett, volunteer coordinator at the Bernard Field Station, insists the designated Code II fire was not as devastating as most think. In agreement with Mr. Miller, she believes the burn-down might bring an abundance of new plant life.

“The plants that live in that community are adapted to fire and, in fact, in order to maintain a healthy community you sort of need to have a fire every so often. Some plants need the fire in order to germinate,” Ms. Hamlett said.

The process of burning plants in order to regenerate them, Ms. Hamlett pointed out, is called stump sprouting. Field station workers have been asking for years to have a controlled burn but have been unsuccessful in getting the necessary approval to do so, she noted.  

“Over time, [plants and brush] get thicker and thicker and overgrown and some of the really neat annuals or smaller perennials can’t grow,” she explained. “After a fire, you are likely to see more of certain plants that aren’t seen very often.”

Ms. Hamlett and other volunteers plan to keep a photo documentation of the re-growth, beginning with images taken from the same vantage points every month for a year. 

Diane Thomson, associate professor of environmental science at the Keck Science Center, has been researching the field station’s annual plants and their dormant seedlings with her students since 2005. Although the fire swept through several of these plots, burning away many of these plants (as marked by little orange flags), Ms. Thomson remains unfazed.

An important part of her research, Ms. Thomson relates, has to do with how changes in the environment are affecting some of the annual plants native to this area. One important change is the habitation of non-native competitors, mostly grasses, brought to California in the late 1800s. In many areas of southern California, these non-native grasses have replaced a lot of the plant species that were once common. Another important area of study is the change in climate and its affect on these plants.

“Fire is an important part of both those stories. The presence of non-native grasses has changed the frequency and intensity of fire in California. At the same time, it’s not totally clear how fire affects competition between those non-native grasses and native species, because the native plant communities here are very fire-adapted,” Ms. Thomson said.

She plans to explore the possibilities with her students.

“In the case of my lab, we’re very interested to see what species come out of the seed bank in response to the fire,” she added. “Will this represent a ‘good’ year for [native plants], or not? A lot might depend on what kind of winter rainfall we get. We are lucky to have data collected over a number of years on the plant community in the area that burned.  This gives us some good baseline data to compare with what happens next.”

Several Claremont Colleges students are already looking into ways to incorporate the burned landscape into their research. Pomona College junior Madison Dipman, an employee of the field station, was on site Tuesday conducting research, picked up where she left off the day of the fire. Now, though, she has a slightly different focus. Ms. Dipman was on her way to the field station to set up insect traps when she received texts about the brushfire. She said she was freaked out at first, but her mindset soon changed.

“It’s upsetting to lose so much landscape, but it provides an interesting opportunity,” she said.

Ms. Dipman looks forward to seeing the effect the fire has on the insect and arthropod community. Beyond her own academic aspirations, Ms. Dipman says the blaze has caused a buzz among her classmates as well.

“People are pretty interested in what [this fire ecology] can do to further their research,” she said.

For now, however, they will have to hold off. The scorched section of the Bernard Field Station is currently off limits as Professor Wallace Meyer, director of the field station, resolves how to best divvy up the space to those interested in using it. That meeting will take place early next week, he confirmed. It’s uncertain when the terrain will be open to academics and what it may mean for the field station, but Mr. Meyer looks forward to the concert of academic research to come.

“With the attention that the fire has brought, we are going to see a real collaboration of research that includes not just the plant life, but the entire ecosystem,” he said. “That’s what I am most looking forward to.”

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

 

Editor’s note: Char Miller, director of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College, penned a column exploring the possibilities for study to be found after the Bernard Field Station fire. To read Mr. Miller’s projections, visit www.kcet.org/user/profile/cmiller.

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