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National Park Service Assesses Loss On Federal Lands Burned By Woolsey Fire


Firefighters have almost fully contained the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. It led to three deaths and torched almost a hundred thousand acres, including parts of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. More than 80 percent of the federal land there has burned. That land is home to many species of plants and animals, including some that are protected or endangered. NPR's Ina Jaffe spoke to National Park Service scientists to find out what was lost and what could recover.

INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Outside of the National Park Service offices in Thousand Oaks, biologist Jeff Sikich props the tailgate of his pickup truck and opens his laptop.

JEFF SIKICH: See a little better.

JAFFE: The screen shows the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area with around a dozen colored dots.

SIKICH: And each color is a different individual animal.

JAFFE: Specifically a mountain lion, or at least its GPS collar.

SIKICH: Right here, this is a female, P65. Now, all these points here are from her in the past week.

JAFFE: So you're pretty confident then that she has survived.


JAFFE: Sikich is in charge of the field work for the mountain lion research project in the Santa Monicas. What he's seen since the start of the Woolsey Fire could have been a lot worse.

SIKICH: I have 13 mountain lions with GPS radio collars on, and I know where 11 of them are right now.

JAFFE: The news is not as good for four bobcats. There's been no sign of them since their habitat burned. Many small creatures were especially hard-hit, says Mark Mendelsohn, a wildland fire resource adviser for the National Park Service.

MARK MENDELSOHN: For example, we saw 30 dead rabbits just in the course of an hour or two driving one of our fire roads.

JAFFE: Mendelsohn is one of a select group certified to go into the burn zones before the fire is out.

MENDELSOHN: We say red-carded in the business.

JAFFE: And lately he's been going out into the burn zones every day. The Woolsey Fire is the largest ever recorded in the Santa Monica Mountains, which are home to many lesser-known species like the endangered San Fernando Valley spineflower. It grows or grew near the ignition point of the fire.

MENDELSOHN: There is hope that some of the populations did survive and that even if they were burned over, that they can recover.

JAFFE: And in all the devastation, animals large and small did manage to survive. Some burrowed underground or flew away. And others may have been spared because the landscape did not burn evenly.

MENDELSOHN: We've seen a lot of heavily burned areas, but also some low to moderately burned areas. So that's what we want to see in a wildfire. We do want to see that mixture where wildlife have places to retreat to as the fire moves through.

JAFFE: And even the bleakest moonscapes can recover, says Mendelsohn. There will be help required from human hands. Biologists will remove invasive plant species and protect breeding pools for the threatened red-legged frog. Firefighters will stick around to remove the bulldozer lines they cut to contain the flames. But most of all, says Mendelsohn, what the Santa Monica Mountains need is not in human control.

MENDELSOHN: We want rain after this fire to bring the vegetation and wildlife back.

JAFFE: But not too much rain, says Mendelsohn, because in California, that often means that the disaster of wildfire is followed by the catastrophe of mudslides. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."