Friday, May 25, 2007

Griffith Park Fire and Chapparal

Griffith Park Fire
Originally uploaded by susanstars
Next week, Councilmember Tom LaBonge will be holding a Special Arts, Parks, Health & Aging committee meeting at Griffith Park to discuss the restoration efforts that are underway. There are a number of converging issues that our city, state, and federal departments will be examining as we work to restore the park, including safety concerns, the ecological impact of the fire, and the cultural and recreational components of Griffith Park. Griffith Park is one of the few places in the world that is home to the chaparral ecosystem, characterized by our particular climate and vegetation. I've asked Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, to provide some background on the chaparral and the impact that the fire will have on the ecosystem.

For more information on next week’s committee meeting, please visit the LA City Council Calendar.

What defines the chaparral?

Chaparral is California's most extensive and characteristic ecosystem. It is a specialized plant community shaped by a Mediterranean-type climate (hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters) dominated by drought-hardy shrubs such as manzanita and chamise (California's most common shrub west of the Sierra Nevada) and is the predominant plant community in all four National Forests in Southern California (and the Santa Monica Mountains).


What areas of the world are home to the chaparral?

The term chaparral specifically refers to the shrubland community in California (with extensions in southern Oregon and Baja California). However, Mediterranean-type climate shrublands exist in South Africa, Central Chile, around the Mediterranean, and southwestern Australia. Each of them has its own special name.

What impact will the Griffith Park fire have on wildlife, vegetation, and the ecological balance of the area?

Fire is a natural part of the chaparral ecosystem. That said, the ecosystem is not adapted to fire per se, but rather a particular fire pattern. Too many fires over a short period of time will completely eliminate the system, with non-native weeds typically taking its place. We know for sure fire intervals less than 10-15 years will eventually eliminate the system. Before humans entered the picture, lower elevation chaparral systems like those found in Griffith Park probably had fire return intervals on the order of several centuries. Since there has been a long enough time since the last fire in most of the area burned, the system will naturally recover. There will be a fascinating succession occurring over the next 10 years as the system slowly recovers. Bird populations will change as well as new vegetation appears and shrubs begin to re-create the closed canopy.

Scientists expect wildfires to increase in the coming years - can you explain the climate and ecological reasons for this, and what the impact of more frequent fires will be for our ecosystem?

Fire frequency over the past century has increased in lock step with population growth. However, as areas become urbanized, there is less wildland to burn, so there has been a slight decrease in the number of fires in certain Southern California regions over the past 25 years or so. Although global climate change may cause drier conditions in Southern California, we are unsure how it will impact the one factor that determines both the size and catastrophic nature of wildfires here, Santa Ana winds.

As I mentioned previously, increased fire frequency can gradually eliminate chaparral systems. In fact, increased fire frequencies can compromise nearly all native plant communities. Which brings up an important point; you hear about how fire suppression has caused an "unnatural" build up of fuels. Yes, maybe for dry ponderosa pine forests and some local mountain forests, but not for the chaparral in Southern California. Our problem is too many fires.

What concrete steps can be taken to restore Griffith Park?

The best course of action is to let nature take its course. In those areas where there is a possible threat of mudslides, mitigation can take place such as laying down straw, building check dams, etc.

This event may actually create a wonderful opportunity for the community to reconnect with nature as citizens visit the park and notice the gradual re-growth. If we have adequate rainfall this fall, you'll see an abundance of wildflowers and beauty LA hasn't seen in the park for generations. Everyone's attention has been captured by the fire, so it presents some perfect teachable moments.