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Brush Fire Turns Bernard Field Station into “Living Lab” for Fire Ecology

Prof. Wallace Meyer, Dakota Spear ’15 and Kristen Park ’17 do field work at the Bernard Field Station.

Prof. Wallace Meyer, Dakota Spear ’15 and Kristen Park ’17 do field work at the Bernard Field Station.

Wildflowers bloom alongside burnt vegetation from last fall’s brushfire.

Wildflowers bloom alongside burnt vegetation from last fall’s brushfire.

The brush fire that charred 17 acres of the Bernard Field Station (BFS) and adjacent north campus properties last September is providing a unique teaching and research opportunity for Pomona professors and students, with three faculty members receiving a Henry David Thoreau Foundation grant this past spring to examine the fire’s impact on ecological succession in an endangered Southern California ecosystem.

Professors Jonathan Wright, Char Miller and Wallace Meyer were awarded the $25,000 grant in March. The Thoreau grant will fund projects that investigate how plant and animal communities in the BFS and neighboring parcels are recovering from the blaze, research that has larger implications for conservation and land management policy in a region that’s prone to fires.

“What we now have is a living lab for fire studies,” says Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis. “We’ve been given a chance to do studies that will help us to write better policies and articulate why fire is essential to creating the landscape that we live in.”

Starting in the fall, a cohort of faculty in Pomona’s biology department will draw on the help of student research assistants to design and implement new experiments with a focus on fire ecology. Many of the professors had been collecting data from the site in the years and months before the fire. The wealth of pre-fire data is giving researchers a rare chance to revisit their old results, says Wallace “Marty” Meyer, assistant professor of biology and director of the Bernard Field Station.

Meyer’s vision is that faculty will collaborate and integrate their respective projects, providing a big-picture perspective that reveals how recent shifts in the ecosystem are changing the relationships between different species and the resources they depend on.

As an example, he points out how the fire can increase levels of available nitrogen in the soil. The altered soil chemistry affects plant growth, which in turn impacts native animals such as woodrats that use shrubs and cacti to make their nests.

“We can all do interesting projects on our own, but they’re even more powerful when you combine everyone’s specialties,” he says.

Other elements of the grant include a new biology course, “Ecological Succession in Southern California.” The class, which Meyer plans to offer in spring 2015, will weave environmental theories with findings from studies at the BFS.

The grant will also fund a new K-12 education program that will be a cornerstone of the field station’s future outreach efforts. Meyer will partner with student interns to create a science curriculum that brings fourth graders from local Claremont schools to do hands-on exploration at the BFS, using the aftereffects of the fire as a teaching tool to illustrate important ecological concepts.

A long-term goal of the initiative is to draw lessons for conservation. Much of the site is composed of coastal sage scrub, a native ecosystem that once dominated the basins of Southern California. After decades of development, the field station is one of only a few small patches that remain intact.

The rareness of coastal sage scrub makes the BFS all the more valuable as a site for observing how native plants and animals have adapted to periodic fires, says Professor of Biology Jonathan Wright.

“This is an ecosystem that naturally does burn, and needs to burn to remain healthy,” Wright says.

He notes that fire plays a critical role in conserving biodiversity. Some native plants known as “fire followers” have evolved to take advantage of fires. If an area stays unburned for many years, certain plant species can start to dominate and crowd out others. “Without fire, the whole structure of the community changes,” he says.

The pattern also has consequences for humans who make their homes along the arid hillsides and canyons of the region. Patches of land that are untouched by fire become overgrown as decades pass, creating a build-up of fuel that only leads to more catastrophic blazes.

Wright and his colleagues believe the upcoming studies at the field station can help generate a more nuanced understanding of fire that could someday inform policy-making by agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, as well as conservation groups like the Nature Conservancy.

“We’ve lived in opposition to fire for a very long time,” says Miller. “I’m hopeful this project will help us to explain why fire matters, why its suppression makes sense in some cases when people are threatened, but not in others. There are ecological reasons that we want fire to exist.”