California on fire

As you read this, more than twenty major wildfires are raging throughout California. One of them, the Wragg Fire, blackened parts of the Audubon Bobcat Ranch Sanctuary a couple weeks ago, and is still burning parts of Napa and Solano counties. These wildfires have scorched more than 130,000 acres, about three times the five-year average for this time of year, according to state fire officials. These fires have prompted California Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency throughout our drought-ravaged state.

The fire at the Audubon Bobcat Ranch was alarming to us, because it was just last summer that another fire scorched more than half of the sanctuary’s 6,800 acres. A lot of good bird habitat was just in the process of recovering. Dozens of amazing bird species rely on California’s oak woodlands to survive, and for the last ten years, we have demonstrated at the Audubon Bobcat Ranch how these birds can thrive in a multiuse landscape, such as cattle ranching. Birds at Bobcat include American Kestrels, Golden Eagles, Great Horned Owls, White-tailed Kites , Lewis’ Woodpeckers, Loggerhead Shrikes, and Burrowing Owls along with Grasshopper Sparrows, Lark Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks. They all rely on the sanctuary’s beautiful blue oak woodlands, annual grasslands, and chaparral.

In his declaration on July 31, Brown said that “California's severe drought and extreme weather have turned much of the state into a tinderbox.” No one doubts that four years of minimal rainfall has created the dry conditions that make wildfires particularly dangerous. Brown’s reference to “extreme weather” is a signal that there’s something even greater at work here than the drought, and that something is climate change. Brown has been linking the state’s drought and climate change at least since spring, when the state began imposing water use restrictions. “Climate change is not a hoax,” he said. “We’re dealing with it and it’s damn serious." And the governor isn’t the only one linking the drought to climate change. A recent PPIC poll found that most Californians believe global warming is having an impact on the state’s persistent drought.

Just four days before the governor’s declaration, researchers from UC Davis announced new research linking climate change to increased wildfire in the Sierra Nevada.

Fire is often a healthy part of life for a natural ecosystem. Healthy bird populations can usually adapt to fire. However, repeated intense fires can be a particular concern to habitat preservation when they cause native habitats to convert to weed-dominated vegetation, which is a problem for birds.

We already know that climate change threatens more than 170 California birds, and the challenge of wildfire adds a new wrinkle to that uncertain future. Nearly every scenario for climate change in California notes an increased risk of wildfire. All the more reason to support current efforts in the California Legislature that not only reduce the global greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change but will also help birds better adapt to a changing environment.

Brigid McCormack is Executive Director of Audubon California.

Photos of the Wragg fire and damage at the Audubon Bobcat Ranch by Eric Schene and Valerie Calegari.

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