Fire damage at a Mojave oasis

Perennial pepperweed, an invasive plant, grew densely in the understory here. It most likely did not die in the fire as the root systems are probably still intact. Photo: Stuart Davis/Mojave Desert Land Trust

In March, the Heritage Fire breached Palisades Ranch, burning 34 acres of this special wildlife haven. We now know that at least 300 mature trees burned in the fire and 10% of the riparian habitat was affected.

This 1,647-acre property spans 3.7 miles of the Mojave River and has 440 acres of cottonwood-willow riparian habitat. Its rich plant community and presence of surface water attract around 40 special-status wildlife species, making it one of the Mojave Desert’s most important habitat areas. The property was acquired by MDLT in 2018 with the goal of restoring and protecting this crucial West Mojave riparian corridor. In recent decades, the former agricultural fields at the property had become overgrown with invasive species including perennial pepperweed, which seriously impacted the native plant population and helped fuel the fire’s spread.

Aerial images and on-the-ground assessments show the fire left a graveyard of trees and habitat. In all, 14 acres of Fremont cottonwood forest, six acres of willow thickets, and three acres of southern cattail and common reeds were affected. Following are some photos of the damage as surveyed by MDLT staff.

This photo shows the destruction of a riparian area that had a complex plant ecology. Most of the burn happened in areas with high canopy coverage. Photo: Stuart Davis/Mojave Desert Land Trust
This photo is of burned cottonwood trees. The understory and substory are destroyed. The stream of water in this photo will most likely erode much faster than before, as there are no plants to prevent erosion. Plants that used to make up the area around the water body could have been comprised of a variety of species. Photo: Stuart Davis/Mojave Desert Land Trust
The east entrance to Palisades Ranch. The road here acted as a fire break, and most likely prevented a much larger fire from occurring. The Palisades Ranch sign was saved from the fire as there was nothing near it to burn. Photo: Stuart Davis/Mojave Desert Land Trust
A graveyard of trees and habitat. Species that are impacted by this fire would include beavers, Mojave river voles, and migrating bird species. Photo: Stuart Davis/Mojave Desert Land Trust
This tree was likely over 50 feet tall. White ash signifies temperatures over 300 degrees Celsius. Photo: Stuart Davis/Mojave Desert Land Trust
This photo showcases that there are still some trees that did not burn in the area and will begin to leaf out, flower, and seed as spring and summer progress. Photo: Stuart Davis/Mojave Desert Land Trust
To keep the fire from spreading farther north along the riparian corridor, fire crews burned the adjacent fallow field. Photo: Amy Langston/Mojave Desert Land Trust
Many of the native plants that burned in the fire, like willows, cattails, and tule, are resilient, fast-growing species. Over the coming weeks and months, we will be able to see how much of the understory resprouts during the growing season. Photo: Amy Langston/Mojave Desert Land Trust
Without vegetation to anchor the soil, the bare ground can become unstable and susceptible to erosion. Photo: Amy Langston/Mojave Desert Land Trust
The adjacent fallow agricultural field is dominated by Russian thistle, an invasive species. Fire crews burned a portion of the field to prevent the fire from burning more of the riparian area and by doing so, helped temporarily reduce cover of this invasive plant. It will take ongoing weed management to keep it from growing back in this area. Photo: Amy Langston/Mojave Desert Land Trust

The fire destroyed rare riparian habitat for the Mojave’s bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species. Beavers, Mojave river voles, and migrating birds are some of the wildlife that may have been impacted. Bird surveys in 2020 detected a federally threatened western yellow-billed cuckoo and two pairs of federally endangered least Bell’s vireo.

MDLT is continuing to assess the damage and impact to flora and fauna. This fire created an even greater urgency for the on-going restoration work and invasive species management.

The property remains strictly closed to the public.

A special fund has been created to help with the immediate restoration work.
You can help by making a donation.

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