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Where There's Smoke

A look at what we know and don't know about how growing wildfires impact our natural world, and how we can learn to cope

wildfire exhibit hero image

Published August 25, 2023

Fire has shaped the natural history of Southern California for thousands of years, and the legacy of those cyclical burnings is recorded in museum collections. NHMLAC researchers use those collections—from fossilized pollen to the feathers of bird specimens and community science observations—to help us understand how fire shaped the region’s past, and how the terrible growth of these blazes threaten our future.

For the first story in our new series on wildfires, we checked in with museum experts to see how wildfires impact the organisms they study.  They are examining this disastrous trend through the lens of natural history and other perspectives to understand how people can plan for—and benefit from—environmental restoration and recovery and what we humans need to do to collectively to bring our planet’s temperature down.

Greg Pauly, Curator of Herpetology
“Wildfires can combine with rain events to be especially damaging to stream-dwelling species. Once rains return, burned hillsides are susceptible to erosion, resulting in sediment run-off or worse—debris flows—that fill in deeper pools in seasonal creeks and rivers. These deeper pools are critical breeding habitat for California red-legged frogs, California newts, and western pond turtles, all species that are declining range-wide and now have one more major challenge threatening their survival."

California red-legged frog
Highlighting the complexity of wildfire's effect on native species, run-off from burned hillsides can fill in the streams and pools that struggling amphibians like the California red-legged frog rely on as habitat.
iNaturalist observation by André Giraldi

Olivia Sanderfoot
Postdoctoral Fellow at the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science

“Despite the fact that we know a lot about how wildfire smoke is impacting public health, we know very little about how wildfire smoke is impacting the health and behavior of animals, including birds. As an ecologist, I'm most worried about birds because birds are highly sensitive to air pollution and likely to experience adverse health impacts upon smoke inhalation.”
 

Black-backed woodpecker on the ground
Black-backed woodpeckers are fire-dependent, laying their eggs in fire-killed trees where insects will be plentiful. Exactly how the growing intensity and frequency of wildfires and their smoke impact birds is a topic that needs further study.
iNaturalist observation by stevestevesen

Jann Vendetti 
Associate Curator of Malacology

“The San Gabriel chestnut snail lives in the fire-prone San Gabriel Mountains, and I've observed them in one of the regions that was burned before the Bobcat Fire. How do they survive wildfires? I imagine that they can isolate themselves in talus slopes or rock piles during fire, but understanding how these snails and others native to our fire-prone habitats cope needs further study.”

San Gabriel Chestnut Snail
Exactly how—and if—endemic snail species like this San Gabriel chestnut snail are surviving challenges like habitat loss, climate change, and the growing intensity of human-caused wildfires requires more study. 
iNaturalist observation by Susan Hopkins

Austin Baker
Postdoctoral Researcher in Entomology

"Insects are impacted by wildfires like most organisms, however, they can show a variety of responses to fire, both positive and negative. Many groups of insects can often escape the immediate peril of wildfires by flying away or digging into the soil. They are among the first animals to re-colonize a site post-fire, and are an important group to study to understand ecosystem recovery after a fire."

a charcoal beetle
Charcoal beetles are attracted to burned trees where they lay their eggs. Like many organisms, they've evolved to rely on fire, an important reminder that fire is entwined with our regional ecology. 
iNaturalist observation by Nick Bédard 

Sam Tayag
Community Science Program Manager

“Recovery from a wildfire is an adventure novel. It's not an action movie. It's little steps that oftentimes people don't see happening all coming together to this big moment, and once that recovery happens, it's super cool to kind of zoom out and take in the whole land. Then all of a sudden, after you're surveying for so long and looking at the little microhabitats and the individual species, one day you roll up, and it’s a completely different place. And it's beautiful.”

chaparral yucca blooming in a recovering burn scar
This chaparral yucca blooming in a recovering burn scar speaks to the myriad ways that nature recovers from the trauma of wildfire. There is beauty and growth in that recovery with lessons for us if we know to look for them.
iNaturalist observation by Sam Tayag 

Growing wildfires are a fact of life for Angelenos and people around the world. Understanding their effects and natural history through the lens of our museum research and vast collections can reframe how we perceive this threat,  understand the risks, and think about preventing catastrophic fires while helping humans find ways to cope with these changes.