Vision Fire: Burning Issues in Fire Management

During the Vision Fire, areas of Point Reyes National Seashore were burned in a mosaic pattern.
 
 
Vision Fire burn area in December 1995

The Vision Fire of 1995

How It All Began

The Vision Fire of October 1995 was a major event in the history of Point Reyes National Seashore and West Marin County. The fire started from smoldering embers in an illegal campsite and was fueled by a dramatic drop in the relative humidity and warm fall temperatures and strong winds that are prevalent that time of year. The following pages details some of the many scientific and educational studies that were undertaken shortJy after the fire began, and many that are still in progress. Another important outcome of the Vision Fire is the role of prescribed fire in an urban/wildland interface. This is a reality that many jurisdictions, including municipalities and homeowners, must cope with.

 
Vision Fire: Map of fire progression
Click on image for a map showing the progression of the Vision Fire
October 3, 1995 - 1:27 p.m. smoke reported, weather changed to 50 mph winds and humidity dropped to 8%.

During the course of the fire, over 2,100 firefighters were on site which included 74 hand crews, 27 bulldozers, 7 air tankers, 7 helicopters, and 196 fire engines.

44 homes destroyed in the surrounding community of Inverness Park Fire jumped from
1 ,600 acres to 9,000 acres on October 4th.

Total acreage consumed was nearly 13,000.

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Looking West from the Limantour area in the 1995 Vision Fire burn area.
Looking West from the Limantour area after the fire.

Prescribes Fires

Their Role in Today's Ecosystem

For the past 80-100 years, wildland firefighters have done well at suppressing fires, maybe too well. Some of the fire history research that has been conducted in and around Point Reyes suggests that fires occurred perhaps as often as every year or as infrequently as every 70 years, depending on the area and Native American group. However, as European dominance and culture prevailed over Native American practices, purposely-set fires were outlawed and eventually discontinued.

With fires being put out, a key component of the ecosystem was/is temporarily excluded. Years and years worth of dead wood and brush have accumulated in our national wildlands. Today, because of the heavy accumulation of fuels on the ground, when an infrequent fire starts, it has the potential to burn hotter and over a wider area than the earlier fires that were set by Native Americans. The 1995 Vision Fire at Point Reyes is an example of what these present day fires, fueled by wood and brush on ground that had not been burned in 80+ years, and pushed by strong winds, can do.

"... neighborhoods are being built in areas where fires have historically burned..."

Another factor of the wildfire problem is the increased amount of structures in the wildlands, known as the urban/wildland interface. As homes and neighborhoods are being built in areas where fires have historically burned, firefighters are having to go on the defensive to save the two top priorities, lives and property, while the fire grows unchecked until other help arrives. During the Vision Fire, many of the firefighting resources were sent to defend structures along the urban/wildland interface, instead of being able to aggressively attack the fire. Compounding this problem is the homeowner who can't or won't keep brush, grass and other flammable materials mowed or cleared away from their structures, an area called "defensible space." If there is already defensible space (State law requires a minimum clearance of 30 feet), chances are firefighters will do their best to save that structure. If lack of defensible space and time to clear it would jeopardize their safety, firefighters would probably look for another house to make a stand where the odds are better.

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The increased fuel loads due to fire suppression and the urban/wildland interface problem, are not unique to Point Reyes or Marin County; indeed, these are nationwide problems. Land managers across the country recognize the need to reintroduce fire into the wildlands to reduce these hazard fuels. Many ecosystems are adapted to fire, and need fire to perpetuate and be healthy. Since the 1960's, there has been a growing effort to treat wildlands with "prescribed fire," or controlled burns.

At Point Reyes National Seashore, prescribed burns are planned and conducted to reduce hazard fuels and restore ecosystems, rangelands, and cultural landscapes. Before the Vision Fire, a maximum of about 300 acres of this nearly 75,000 acre park were burned each year. Since the Vision Fire, more research has been conducted to determine the needed frequency to reestablish fire at needed intervals. This research into the fire history is continuing, but initial findings point to the need to treat approximately 2500 acres per year with fire.

When there is fire, there is smoke. And where there is smoke, there are concerns of health, visibility and obscured vistas. Increased amounts of smoke, a necessary byproduct of prescribed burning, can be managed to a certain extent by burning with favorable winds, dry fuels and an unstable atmosphere. However, predicting the climactic conditions, especially the upper level winds, is not an exact science. Part of the education effort about the need for prescribed fire is to explain that occasionally there will be some days when the smoke is thick and heavy, and other days when it will not be noticed at all. It all depends on the whim of the weather and direction of the wind, which are only partially predictable.

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Sculptured Beach area after the 1995 Vision Fire.
Sculptured Beach area after the 1995 Vision Fire.
An important concept of fire is that we must think of fire occurrence as "when" instead of "if." Given that the 1) wildlands of this area are flammable and historically have experienced both small frequent fires and large, infrequent fires; 2) fires have been excluded for a long period of time resulting in an unnaturally high loading of fuels; 3) fires will start, either through carelessness, maliciousness or lightning, it is inevitable that it will burn again, despite the best efforts of firefighters. So if a fire is going to occur, it makes more sense to plan ignitions and allow the fire to burn under favorable conditions of weather, fuel conditions and resources, than to react to an unplanned fire which has the potential to devastate resources, property, and tragically, lives.

A 1996 study done at Sequoia National Park compared the cost of planned ignitions (prescribed burns) versus unplanned ignitions (wildfires). Prescribed burn costs averaged $48 per acre, while wildfire suppression cost over $800 per acre.

It is important to emphasize that prescribed fire is not the answer to wildland fire problems. There will always be unplanned ignitions, which will threaten lives and property, and need to be aggressively suppressed. But prescribed burns by wildland fire managers and the clearing of defensible space by homeowners will contribute greatly in the effort to reduce the growing cost and problem of destructive wildfires.

Dan Buckley
Point Reyes National Seashore

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Rills and Hoodoos, Tree Falls, Debris Dams and Fans

The Effects of Fire in Muddy Hollow Watershed

1 The steep headwaters
Although the seasonal rainfall was just slightly above average (38.15 inches), the first winter rains hit the bare ground hard. Large rain drops falling freely from the branches of burnt Bishop pines splattered ash and loose soil. As the drops battered the soil, bits of bark and pebbles, acting like umbrellas, left pedestals of soil called hoodoos. Some were as much as three inches high, indicating the amount of soil removed under the pines. At the heads of channels, groundwater emerged from tunnels where roots had rotted. It bubbled up through burnedout tree stumps. The combination of intense fire, organic compounds from pines, and granitic soils caused the soil surface to repel water. As rainwater flowed over soil, rills cut and joined each other, and new channels carved across old sediment fans that previously separated the headwater creeks from the main channel. Sediment transport on the hillsides became linked to the main channel. More water was conveyed more rapidly. In a 64 acre headwater drainage, the amount of channel doubled and runoff increased from 10% to 42%, more typical of an urbanized watershed. As a result, higher storm flows incised much of the creek bed, exposing fresh white granite faces.
By the end of the second winter, moss, herbs, young brush shoots, and tree saplings protected the soil surface. Water repellent conditions disappeared and hillside erosion decreased. Stream flow continued to cut the steepest headwater creeks and most of the sediment was transported to the middle reaches.

 
Map of Muddy Hollow Creek.  Click on image for a larger map.
Click on image for a larger map of the Muddy Hollow Drainage after the fire.

2 The middle reaches
During the first winter, sediment was effectively transported through the middle reaches to the downstream fan. Adjacent hillside soils (developed on sedimentary rocks supporting chaparral and grasses) were mildly water repellent and rills did not form. Abandoned roads bearing the scars of previous agricultural land use showed themselves in the blackened landscape. These were the only significant sources of erosion. Abandoned and blown-out reservoirs revealed deeply entrenched channels with nearly 20 ft-high vertical banks held stable by dense root networks of alders and other riparian vegetation. Active landsliding, stream bank erosion, and downcutting of the creek was minimal. Only a few gravel bars stored sediment and occasional debris dams memorialized past floods.
By the second winter new vegetation flourished under the open canopy of a stressed riparian forest. The trees started falling as their roots decayed, which diminished the cohesion of the banks. In some 500 ft-long reaches, within the abandoned reservoirs, an average of one fallen tree exists per every 6 feet of channel. Stream banks have become a major source of sediment. Fallen trees that intercept flow are forming new debris dams that trap sediment. They divert flow against the banks, which causes the creek to become wider and shallower. As the stream gradient flattens, the creek is less able to transport sediment. Gravel bars are therefore becoming more abundant. For years hence, the creek will continue to adjust to increased supplies of sediment and wood.

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Stream erosion along Muddy Hollow Creek after the 1995 Vision Fire.
Stream erosion along Muddy Hollow Creek after the fire.
3 The downstream fan
Muddy Hollow Creek flows into a reservoir near Limantour Beach. But before reaching the reservoir, it spreads across the valley floor in a large alluvial fan. The fan may have first formed during the January 1982 flood, after which an even-aged stand of alders established themselves around a single creek channel. During the fire a thin layer of ash was deposited on the fan. After the first winter, multiple channels (distributaries) spread half a foot of granitic sediment over the ash. The sediment came from the distant headwaters. During the second winter, sedimentation on the fan was much siltier, due to bank erosion of the middle reaches. The apex of the fan moved upstream as more of the channel filled and splayed its sediment across the older strata that record landscape evolution in Point Reyes. In time, a stable creek will flow through a new alder forest, closing a chapter on the Vision Fire.

Laurel Collins
UC Berkeley
Brannon Ketcham
Point Reyes National Seashore

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A Bishop pine cone after the heat from the 1995 Vision Fire melted the resin which allowed seeds to drop and begin the reforestation of young pines.
A Bishop pine cone after the heat from the 1995 Vision Fire melted the resin which allowed seeds to drop and begin the reforestation of young pines.

Bishop Pines Survive

The Bishop Pine Forest Community at Point Reyes was examined to assess the impact of the 1995 Vision Fire on the regeneration of the plant community with particular emphasis on Bishop pine. The study sites were surveyed in the summer of 1996 and 1997. Thirty-two transects were surveyed along Inverness Ridge and Bayview Trail. Along with the environmental variables, such as slope, aspect and location, vegetation species composition, frequency, and seedling counts were recorded for each transect. The most significant result so far was the abundance of Bishop pine seedlings found throughout the transects. On average, 26 seedlings per square meter were recorded within the burned Bishop Pine Community. June 1997 surveying found that the seedlings on most sites appeared to be healthy and growing, with some as tall as 1.2 meters. There were few new (this year) seedlings noted. There was some seedling mortality under large shrubs of ceanothus (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus) and lupine (Lupinus arboreus) and fireweed (Erechtites minima). Although very little fireweed was observed in the study area during the first year's sampling, this year's sampling noted the presence of fireweed on at least 50% of the sites. There appeared to be little predation of seedlings as was originally feared.

Two years have passed since the Vision Fire of October 1995, and the Bishop pines have reproduced at an amazing rate. Associated scrub vegetation typically occurring in association with Bishop pines have also been successful at resprouting and reestablishing. The lupine in some areas is over five feet tall. Huckleberries (Vaccinium ovatum), ceanothus, and coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) have resprouted vigorously. Their dominance as understory cover may lead to a further loss of seedlings in the understory. The occurrence of exotic invasives (such as fireweed) although minimal on the study site the first year, is beginning to playa significant role this year. Long-term monitoring will yield abundant information on Bishop pine seedling survival, competition among associated species, as well as the role of fireweed and it's importance in this most fascinating plant community.

Barbara A. Holzman, Ph.D.
Karen Folger
San Francisco State University

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Riparian habitat showing little damage from the air. However, the understory was affected by the fire.
Riparian habitat showing little damage from the air. However, the understory was affected by the fire.

Butterflies and Moths

A Tale of Survival

During October when the Vision Fire occurred, most insects are dormant, in their egg, larva, or pupa stages, buried in ground debris or soil. Hence many species were protected, but where the fire was as intense as in the pine forest, even ground dwellers were killed. From historical collections made around Inverness, we estimate 450-500 species of butterflies and moths lived in the Vision Fire area.

Recovery of butterfly and moth populations depends upon how soon and in what succession plants regrow, because nearly all the caterpillars feed on living plants, and most of the species specialize on only one or a few kinds of plants. After the fire, about 115 species, 25 of butterflies and 90 of moths or their caterpillars were recorded in 1996 and the first half of 1997, in a triangular area defined by the Inverness Ridge, Drakes View, and Bay View trails. This is perhaps 25% of the species that occurred on Inverness Ridge before the fire.

Most of these survivors or new colonists were observed in two areas: the lower canyons above Muddy Hollow, where the fire was less intense and primarily affected the understory of the streamside woods, or near the periphery of the fire, such as around the Bay View trailhead. Remarkably, a few species survived even in the intensely burned pine forest area - for example tiny moths whose larvae mine leaves of cow parsnip and California coffeeberry. The abundance of some insects has been enhanced by luxuriant growth of certain plants in areas where they were rare before the fire - the Orange Sulphur and Acmon Blue butterflies, for example, have colonized the extensive Lotus that carpets the floor of the former pine forest. This growth will diminish as shrubs and trees regenerate, leading to decline in these butterflies. More than 30 other plants already are serving as hosts for moth and butterfly caterpillars in the burn area, including coast live oak (with 11 species), willow (8 species), blue blossom ceanothus (6 species), nettle, and coyote bush (4 each).

Jerry A. Powell, Ph.D.
Liz Randal
UC Berkeley

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Birds, such as the Warbling Vireo, fared well in nesting success after the fire.
Birds such as the Warbling Vireo fared well in nesting success after the fire.

Songbirds in the Vision Fire Zone

On October 10, 1995 - within hours of containment of the massive Vision Fire - Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO) biologists donned bright yellow fire suits and hard hats and paid their first post-fire visit to the once lush riparian valleys of Point Reyes National Seashore.

In fly-overs at an altitude of 1,000 feet, fire assessment team members had reported that most riparian areas in the burn appeared relatively unscathed. Our on-the-ground visits were some of the first to relay that the understory, the most important habitat for breeding songbirds, was devastated: many stretches in Muddy Hollow and Coast Trail were over 90% burned.

Because the wind-fanned flames had moved extremely rapidly, burning some 9,000 acres in just 24 hours on the second day of the fire, they burned different areas at different intensities. This left a mosaic on the land that included some relatively small unburned riparian patches. During the blaze, these had acted as refugia for numerous creatures, especially mobile ones like songbirds.

In the weeks immediately after the fire, these patches were literally inundated with birds. Birds of all types persisted in them: wrentits and whitecrowned sparrows from the coastal scrub; nuthatches and woodpeckers from the Bishop pine forests; and even yellowthroats and marsh wrens from nearby burned marshes. Our data from bird censuses and regular mist netting backed up our first impressions: the abundance and diversity of birds in these riparian patches in the months following the fire were higher than in nearby watersheds outside the burn area.

The Vision Fire removed most if not all of the vegetation that songbirds use to conceal and support nests, which then led to increased predation. Because of the strong insistence on breeding in the same place year after year, it was determined that these songbirds would stay in virtually the same location even though there was a lack of vegetative cover. This led researchers to believe the breeding season would have the lowest documented songbird productivity ever.

"... Nest locations within the burn zone had a success rate of over 50%..."

 
The Wilson's Warbler benefited from the burn by showing higher productivity in 1996 than their counterparts in unburned habitats.
The Wilson's Warbler benefited from the burn by showing higher productivity in 1996 than their counterparts in unburned habitats.

That proved to be wrong. Indices of productivity obtained at burned sites near Muddy Hollow and Coast Trail surpassed even the highly productive, and unburned, sites in other Seashore locations.

These results were backed up by the nests data obtained in the spring of 1996. Over 250 nests of open-cup birds were found in both burned and unburned areas. Nest locations within the burn zone had a success rate of over 50% - 15% more than in unburned riparian sites. In real numbers of birds, this translates to an average of 50 more young per 100 nests in the burned area.

Events such as fire and flood, though catastrophic in appearance, are normal and natural processes. If these natural processes are suppressed and habitats remain unaffected by fluctuations, then the ecological community stagnates and is dominated by a few species.

The constant "unbalance of nature" is likely the key to maintaining healthy ecosystems. Devising management strategies that work with natural processes and open up ecosystems to fluctuations that renew them, may hold a promise for cost-effective maintenance of healthy and diverse populations of birds.

Geoff Geupel
Point Reyes Bird Observatory

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Over 60% of the Mountain Beaver's habitat was destroyed during the Vision Fire. One area where habitat was lost was near the Clem Miller Environmental Education Center.
Over 60% of the Mountain Beaver's habitat was destroyed during the Vision Fire. One area where habitat was lost was near the Clem Miller Environmental Education Center.

Effects of the Vision Fire on the Point Reyes Mountain Beaver

Mountain beavers are burrow-dwelling rodents which live in thickets throughout the Point Reyes area. They are a muskrat-sized animal with only a short, stumpy tail. Though their name suggests otherwise, they are not closely related to the better-known beavers with their large, flat tails and pond-dwelling habits.

While mountain beavers range from British Columbia to central California, the Point Reyes mountain beaver is a distinct subspecies which is found almost exclusively within the National Seashore. The Vision Fire burned through much of the prime habitat for this rare animal. Immediately after the fire, it was estimated that 60% of the individuals at Point Reyes once lived within the area which burned.

 
Prescribed fires are a critical step in the prevention of large, catastrophic wildfires.
We established a 150 acre monitoring site to evaluate long-term recovery in the mountain beaver population. Immediately after the fire, we found only 18 animals in an area which once supported a population of 2,500 mountain beavers. Hence less than one in a hundred mountain beavers survived the fire. Clearly, the Vision Fire had a devastating effect on the Point Reyes mountain beaver.

Since the fire, there has been a significant regrowth of vegetation within the burn area. Some of this has made the thickets (favored by mountain beavers) less suitable due to the impenetrably dense growth of ceanothus and blackberries. In most of these areas, mountain beavers have died out completely. In other parts of the burn, the regrowth has favored mountain beavers. With the use of remote-triggered cameras, we have detected the presence of young animals. While the current population (within our 150 acre monitoring area) is still close to 20 animals, there are clear signs of reproduction and recovery.

We have not detected mountain beavers moving in from surrounding areas, in part due to the lack of suitable habitat immediately adjacent to the burn.


Over time, the habitat is likely to become increasingly favorable for mountain beavers and their numbers are likely to increase to former levels.

Gary Fellers, Ph.D.
Point Reyes National Seashore

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Last updated: February 28, 2015

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