Learning from how animals adapt to wildfire

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USC Master of Landscape Architecture + Urbanism students Andrea Binz and Diana Nightingale were selected for the 2022 Student Honor Award in Analysis and Planning by the American Society of Landscape Architects for their capstone project “Learning from Animal Adaptations to Wildfire”.

Andrea and Diana’s win adds to a streak of ASLA National Student Awards the MLA+U program has won over the last few years, including an Award of Honor in General Design and Awards of Excellence in Research two years in a row.

In this year-long research and design inquiry, led by faculty advisors Greg Kochanowski and Aja Bulla-Richards, animal adaptations to wildfire inform a land management framework designed to catalyze regeneration of habitat niches in post-fire landscapes and support ecological resilience.

“With well-conceived and beautifully rendered diagrams and vignettes, the proposal clearly outlines the challenges and proposes solutions that seem equally innovative and achievable,” noted the 2022 Awards Jury.

Over the past century, wildfires have become more frequent and severe than the historical fire regimes of the San Gabriel mountains. Even with increasing annual state budgets set aside for fighting fires, typical management practices such as firefighting, community hardening, fuel breaks, and fuel clearance are struggling to keep pace with this increasingly destructive hazard. Therefore, it is imperative to seek new strategies to meet these environmental challenges.

Around the world, wildlife have developed complex strategies for coexisting with wildfire. Binz and Nightingale researched a diversity of wildlife strategies, focusing on four animals: the beaver, woodpecker, beetle, and ground squirrel, each ecosystem engineers in their own way. These animals’ adaptations to wildfire inspired four primary framework goals including increasing soil moisture, developing a mosaic of ecosystems, promoting dynamic stability, and supporting soil ecosystem services. These framework goals then inspired seven landscape interventions that respond to local topographies and strategically reuse materials produced by wildfires that are traditionally removed off site after a fire.

To identify a test site, the students focused in on the Monrovia Hillside Wilderness Preserve, a beloved, community-managed preserve and hiking spot affected by the 2020 Bobcat Fire, one of the largest wildfires in Los Angeles County’s recorded history. Their plan would engage key groups in the local community as partners and advisors, including the City of Monrovia, which owns and manages the site, local fire departments, the Forest Service, the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, and the California Botanic Garden.

Severe fires denude hillsides of vegetation and destroy soil ecosystems making them prone to heavy erosion and debris flows during and following winter storms. As a result, wildlife find it harder to return to the space and begin the process of bringing the ecosystem back to life. The interventions key into these issues, and together form a network of strategies that begin to reshape the land.

The installations create habitat niches that support the return of a diverse and healthy ecosystem. Over time, increased soil moisture content, recovery of soil biodiversity, and resulting vegetative regrowth along canyons and hillsides further aid in additional water capture and quality. Microtopographies enhanced by natural processes catch seeds and create habitat niches. Increased soil moisture along the different topographies decreases the likelihood the area will burn as severely in the future and provides a refuge for wildlife during future fires.

Interventions respond to the unique assemblage of local topographies, strategically reuse natural materials, and engage the community in land care. The post-fire landscape is re-imagined as an opportunity to reshape the land over time through careful stewardship and natural processes, promote recovery and adaptation, and provide for wildlife.

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