Everything is Connected

by John Hiatt

The China Ranch Date Farm is located on Willow Creek, a tributary of the Amargosa River in southeastern Inyo County, California, near Tecopa. In addition to the cultivated area of the date farm, the property includes about three-fourths of a mile of riparian forest supported by water flowing from springs upstream of the cultivated area. The riparian forest is dominated by Gooding’s willow trees in the overstory and coyote willows and mesquite in the understory. There is also a significant amount of quailbush in the drier areas. With no real disturbance for several decades, the quantity of downed and dead material created the potential for a catastrophic fire. In April of 2020, an accidental, human-caused ignition was the beginning of that fire.

The China Ranch Date Farm is located on Willow Creek, a tributary of the Amargosa River in southeastern Inyo County, California, near Tecopa.

c. Pic - Willow Creek, June 2020

The Inyo County volunteer fire department from Tecopa and BLM fire crews responded and confined the burn to about six acres of primarily honey mesquite and coyote willow vegetation. That was on a Friday evening. The following Tuesday a wind started blowing, reigniting a hot spot and blowing embers across the road into the main riparian area. The wind driven fire then burned downstream toward a previously cleared fire break where a change in the wind direction and heroic actions on the part of the owner and responding fire crews stopped the fire and allowed it to reverse direction and burn upstream. The fire eventually ran out of fuel at the head of the riparian area and was then brought under control.

Due to the enormous bulk of dead and down vegetation, the fire burned very hot, and all the above ground plant material, save a few isolated mesquites on the periphery, was thoroughly burned. Essentially, no plant material that was less than two inches in diameter prior to the fire survived. The top inch or so of soil was heated to a high temperature, and the included organic material was turned into ash. After the fire was finally out, looking at the burn area all one saw were the charred trunks of the larger Gooding’s willows and honey mesquites plus a few seedling date palms that had grown up over the years from wildlife distributed date seeds.

Post-fire challenges included replacing burned irrigation infrastructure, which included about 800 linear feet of six inch diameter aluminum water line, so that irrigation of the date orchard could be restored. There was also concern that any significant rain event would cause a  serious soil erosion. To forestall that, dead palm fronds from the date orchard were tied into bundles with about six fronds per bundle to make wattles which were then staked down perpendicular to the slope to arrest potential soil movement. The wattles worked well, and there has not been any significant soil movement.

Working with The Nature Conservancy, which held a conservation easement on the property, an experienced sawyer was hired to cut down hazard trees These were defined to include fire-killed trees that could fall onto a road or any other place that people might frequent, and these were used to build what are called beaver dam analogs or sediment retention structures in the stream channels. The sediment retention structures have worked well as they have raised the water table and created wet soil where seeds can germinate. Volunteers also did pole plantings of coyote willows to help that species re-establish itself.

Within a few weeks of the fire, green shoots of re-sprouting vegetation began to appear in the areas with wet soil. Among the first was three-square bulrush, sprouting from rhizomes. That species had long been present, but was not noticeable among all the brush. Also, seedlings of both screwbean and honey mesquite appeared. Unfortunately, tamarisk, aka salt cedar, appeared in large numbers. Although the nearest tamarisk plants were hundreds of yards to miles away, the microscopic wind-blown seeds are everywhere and will colonize any area with warm, wet mineral soil. A couple of volunteer work days took care of most of the tamarisk, and with some follow-up, the area remains pretty much tamarisk free. Another plant that appeared post fire in large numbers was datura, or jimson weed. This is a native plant with nice flowers but not otherwise very desirable. It is starting to die out as it is over-topped and shaded out. By the end of summer 2020, the Gooding’s willows had started to re-sprout and were about three feet high.

This year, four years post fire, the Gooding’s willow re-sprouts are 20-25 feet high, and coyote willows are 6-10 feet high along with a few cottonwoods that had also been planted. There are also quite a few screwbean and honey mesquite trees that are doing well. The vegetation is thick enough that it is difficult to find some of the photo point stakes. Aggressive species, both native and non-native, are taking over any open space. Examples of these are quailbush and five-hook bassia. Looking at the burn area today, one sees mostly green, fairly dense vegetation that is well on the road to recovery. Moving forward, a major challenge will be figuring out how to avoid a repeat of the huge buildup of dead vegetation that fueled the 2020 fire. The major lessons from this fire are that without natural disturbances such as fire or flood to limit the buildup of dead vegetation in riparian areas, catastrophic fire will inevitably happen, and when this does happen, it is imperative to control non-native invasive plants so that the native vegetation can recover.

John Hiatt, a desert activist living in Las Vegas, Nevada, is vice-chair of the Sierra Club Desert Committee, and is a board member of Friends of Nevada Wilderness. His particular concerns have been water usage and protection of Wilderness Areas.