PLANET RANCH — The fire that raged through the Planet Ranch area in the Bill Williams River National Wildlife Refuge this past week posed no threat to surrounding communities, but it is still unknown what damage has been done to the refuge’s ecosystem.
Sparked by a lightning strike last Wednesday, the Planet Ranch fire ignited an area of the refuge that had an abundance of lighter fuels such as salt cedar and mesquite and quickly moved on to nearby desert cottonwoods and willows. The Bill Williams Refuge is home to one of the last stands of cottonwood riparian forests, which are a popular nesting option for some endangered bird species.
“We have multiple endangered species in that particular area that are present or have been detected in that area in previous years,” Refuge Biologist Ethan Seavey said. “That includes the western yellow billed cuckoo and the southwest willow flycatcher which both prefer to nest in cottonwood or willow.”
According to Seavey, the fire also impacted the cattails marsh habit where the endangered Yuma Ridgway’s rail nests. In fact the birds are currently in the middle of their chick rearing season but Seavey says wildlife officials won’t know the impact the fire had on the rails until rangers are able to see it for themselves.
Cottonwood and willow are present throughout the whole refuge but Seavey says that the fire occurred right where the largest gathering of the plants are. Cottonwood uses the wind to spread its seed so Seavey says he is hopeful that given the right conditions cottonwoods from other parts of the refuge will help replace the lost plants.
“We do have some very, very healthy stands up stream of the impacted area where we are really, really hopeful that in the next couple of years we get some good rains, we get some good surface water flow that we will actually see some of those areas getting recolonized by cottonwood and willow from our upstream population,” Seavey said.
According to Seavey the refuge is getting the ball rolling on the process of securing funds needed to help with the rehab of the burned area. The first step he says in the rehab process is getting a handle on invasive species that tend to take root after a fire disturbs an ecosystem.
“Invasive species are just always a factor when we have these big disturbance events, whether it’s a flood or a fire,” Seavey explained. “There is a possibility that we have a resprouting of salt cedar. There are a couple of other species of concern that we are definitely going to be looking out for over the next couple years.”
Seavey says some of those invasive species the refuge will be on the lookout for include Bermuda grass, Sahara mustard and stinknet. He also says that the refuge will be working with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Invasive Species Strike Team.
While dealing with invasive species is the first step in the rehab process of the burned Planet Ranch area, Seavey says that there are still a lot of unknowns that have to be figured out before a detailed rehabilitation plan can be determined.
“There are a lot of different factors that are going to play into how we approach restoration in the area,” Seavey said. “Some of those factors include depths to groundwater, burn severity or an area and whether or not there is any surviving vegetation in the area. We are going to have to see over the next couple of weeks once we get boots on the ground to assess the situation.”