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Photograph by Chip Scheuer
Whirlybird: When the fire arrived, along with the equipment to fight it, the creatures that could get away did.

Firestorm of Trouble for Santa Cruz Salmon

Domestic and wild mammals fared pretty well during the Lockheed fire. Fish, not so much.

By Curtis Cartier, Kat Lynch and Traci Hukill

AS OF Monday afternoon, 288 animals had been rescued from the Lockheed Fire by volunteers with several Central Coast animal welfare groups, including the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Santa Cruz County Equine Evacuation Unit and Santa Cruz County Animal Services. The roster included 27 dogs, 41 cats, 40 chickens, 15 ducks, seven sheep, seven goats, five geese, 11 llamas, 20 horses, one pig, one donkey, three alpacas, one parrot, one cockatiel, one turtle, seven doves and 100 cattle. Henry Brzezinski, general manager at SCCAS, said none of the pets or livestock were injured, and that most will be back in their homes this week as the evacuation orders are relaxed.

"About 100 animals died in the Summit Fire last year, so I think we did pretty good this year," said Brzezinski.

Brzezinski said no wildlife had been reported injured in the fire area, besides a fawn that was hit by a car but never found. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, bobcats, deer, hawks, jays, opossums and foxes are just a few of the natural creatures that can be found. And as their homes go up in flames, the animals flee--often right into the back yards of nearby neighborhoods. Rebecca Dmytryk of local emergency animal service organization WildRescue says the animals that flee fires are often disoriented and that a little courtesy from residents can go a long way.

"When they come through they'll be looking for food and water," she says. "You shouldn't feed them, but you can set out some water on the edge of your property."

Dmytryk says some of the most vulnerable animals to fires are short-ranged songbirds like jays and quail. Especially during coastal fires like Lockheed, these birds can be pushed out toward the ocean, where they often drown.

"During the Malibu fires last year we saw hundreds of songbirds that had flown out to sea and were washed up on the shore," says Dmytryk. "A lot of other animals will get scorched pads on their feet. But fire is natural and the animals will come back. Nature always finds a way."

Even plants survive wildfires. Brett Hall, director of Living Collections at UC-Santa Cruz, says most of the flora affected by the fire is naturally adapted to wildfires. "Many seeds germinate in response to chemical stimulation from smoke and water," says Hall. "There are specific chemicals in smoke that are released when fire-charred areas are rained upon." He gives manzanita as an example of a plant that thrives in the wake of the fires. But, he says, "The jury is still out on what the 'optimal' fire frequency is for Swanton maritime chaparral."

Salmon Scramble
One life-form not expected to thrive in Lockheed's wake is salmon. Firefighters saved the Monterey Bay Trout and Salmon Project hatchery off Swanton Road last Thursday, and with it almost 40,000 steelhead and coho hatchlings destined to restock the San Lorenzo River and Scott Creek. But the fish are by no means in the clear--neither the hatchlings in their pools nor the fish at sea will return to inland rivers this winter to spawn.

Carla Moss, who in a long-anticipated move took the official mantle of hatchery director on Monday, explains the perils to the hatchery fish. When the first rains of this year sluice down the fire-charred hills, they'll wash silt, ash, redwood tannins and all manner of particulates into the creeks, including Big Creek, which feeds the pools at the hatchery. "It will change the pH of the water, and the particulates will clog the gill membranes of the steelhead and coho," she says. Reduced canopy in the upper watershed could also warm up the water. The gravely endangered coho is especially sensitive to changes in temperature and water quality.

Furthermore, she explains, the fire melted a separate water line running from pristine Berry Creek (different from the Big Basin waterway), depriving the hatchery of its purest source of water for incubating eggs.

Moss and her predecessor, Dave Streig, said officials from the state Department of Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service were scheduled to meet Tuesday, Aug. 18, to discuss moving the coho hatchlings to pools at Long Marine Lab for the worst of the winter rains in hopes of avoiding a deluge of bad water into the holding tanks.

Streig, whose 28-year career trying to bring back the Central Coast salmon ended on a low smoky note on Friday, says it would be crucial to get them back up to the hatchery for at least several weeks before their scheduled release near the spring equinox so they could "imprint on the watershed."

"They memorize where they're coming home to, and for Scott Creek that's going to be a mess," Streig says. "The key is decaying vegetation, organic compounds from rotting leaves in the creek that they key into, and the ratio of those chemical compounds is gonna be wrong now. A lot of this we learned after Mount St. Helens when the Toutle River was wiped out. Basically the fish just disappeared for three years because it didn't smell right to them."

NMFS biologist Jon Ambrose says moving the fish is probably not what will happen, but it's hard to say just yet. Right now he's focused on getting CalFire to construct protective berms that shelter the waterways on their way out of the watershed--after the blaze is out, of course, and hopefully before another major wildfire flares up in California and sucks up all the resources. "This is the critical time to button it up, while the equipment is still out there," he says.

Ambrose says the Lockheed fire points out an unfortunate fact of life for endangered species.

"It's unfortunate that this fire happened where it did," he says, "because Scott Creek is, in terms of remaining coho creeks south of San Francisco Bay, the one with the best overall population. And nature bats last, and the range has been constricted and constricted, and these are the disasters we worry about when the population is so greatly reduced. They become very vulnerable. If you had a big resilient population, with fish in the San Lorenzo and all around Santa Cruz County, it would be unfortunate but it wouldn't have the disastrous consequences this has."

Meanwhile, he adds, pray that this purported El Niņo year begins quietly rather than with a stream-sullying deluge. "We'll keep our fingers crossed that the first rains we get are nice and gentle," he says.

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