After several of the UC natural reserves were impacted by wildfires in August, the UC Natural Reserve System, or UCNRS, will gather data from nine reserves to identify how different ecosystems respond to wildfires.
Kathleen Wong, UCNRS spokesperson, described the UCNRS as “a library of ecosystems,” composed of 41 reserves representing the major habitat types across California. She added that the August wildfires burned approximately 16,500 acres of UC-owned land at the reserves.
The burn recovery study aims to use drone surveys, satellite images and ground surveys to curate a dataset of post-burn information about the various ecosystems in the UCNRS, according to Wong.
“The bottom line is that the state is going to be facing, and is already facing, more frequent wildfires on its natural landscapes,” Wong said. “Getting a better understanding of what these fires do to ecosystems and the soil is going to be important to understand how to best manage these impacts.”
The UCNRS conducted a preliminary drone survey at UC Berkeley’s Hastings Natural History Reservation in early October, Wong added. Jennifer Hunter, resident director of the Hastings Natural History Reservation, said the August wildfires led to “the most fire impact” the reservation has experienced, with approximately 600 acres of land burned.
The drone images of the Hastings Natural History Reservation revealed that former grassland burned at a relatively low intensity, whereas land covered by chamise chaparral, a shrub species, burned at a much higher intensity, according to a UCNRS article.
Drone images also showed that grass directly below oak tree canopies did not burn, according to the article. Wong noted that when moisture from fog drips from the leaves of a tree to the ground directly beneath the tree, the soil becomes more moist and therefore less likely to burn.
“These fires can have pretty profound effects on the ecosystem, plant communities and animal communities and how they use the landscape,” Hunter said. “If we can document the ways in which these areas change, we can predict how future fire events may impact these same ecosystems.”
According to Wong, drone surveys can identify the surface topography of burned land as well as the water status of plants, which tells researchers whether or not plants in a particular area have enough hydration to perform photosynthesis. Wong added that the water status of plants can help determine the health of an ecosystem and can identify an area’s wildfire risk, since hydrated environments are less vulnerable to wildfire.
Wong noted that the burn recovery study will help researchers understand how impacts from wildfires can be mitigated in certain areas.
“We want to keep our ecosystems as healthy as possible because those are our lungs,” Wong said. “These are the systems that sustain us even though many people don’t realize it.”