Tolmie's pussy ears, Calochortus tolmiei , identified by "Fire Follower" Donna Thomas in a burned area in Ben Lomond.
Tolmie’s pussy ears, Calochortus tolmiei , identified by “Fire Follower” Donna Thomas in a burned area in Ben Lomond.
(Courtesy Donna Thomas)

Santa Cruz’s ‘Fire Followers’ document phoenix-like flowers rising from ashes of CZU blaze

Citizen scientists are helping the professionals track what’s growing in areas ravaged by last year’s conflagration -- and, naturalists hope, gaining some understanding of fire’s important role in a forest’s life cycle.

Hundreds of Santa Cruz hikers are now double-timing as scientists, enrolled in a unique statewide project: They’ve become “Fire Followers,” helping to document new plants growing in the aftermath of last year’s wildfires.

2020 was the most destructive fire season in California history, and Santa Cruz County was one of the hardest-hit areas — the CZU Lightning Complex fire burned 86,509 acres, destroying 1,490 structures and killing one local man. Recovery is still underway as many residents are just beginning to rebuild their homes and move on from the disaster. But for the natural landscape, fire isn’t always a devastating aberration; it’s an important part of a forest life cycle.

The Fire Followers project was created in February by the California Native Plant Society. It utilizes iNaturalist (an app run as a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society) for sharing and identifying flora and fauna observations.

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Posts made to iNaturalist from within the burn zones that are open and deemed safe to visit are automatically added to the Fire Followers database, so members — and eventually scientists — can view data on what species users are observing post-fire. Over 300 users have posted more than 3,000 observations in the CZU burn area.

“If we go 10 years back, we can see exactly what people were documenting there before the fires,” said Jose Esparza Aguirre, community science coordinator for CNPS. “Then after the fires, we can see exactly what’s coming up, and we can continue to monitor that to sort of compare that information.”

The community science project also has an important education and outreach component: to try to change the language around fires.

“We mainly focus on the ecological impacts of wildfire, while also not undermining the social impact, “ Esparza Aguirre said. “Fires are essentially multifaceted and complex, [and] it is important to note that while they can be incredibly traumatic for humans, [they] can also be a great thing for plants.”

A redwood violet, Viola sempervirens, identified by Donna Thomas in a burned area in Ben Lomond.
A redwood violet, Viola sempervirens, identified by Donna Thomas in a burned area in Ben Lomond.

Donna Thomas is a longtime Santa Cruz resident, hiker, iNaturalist user and now a participant in the Fire Followers project. She said it’s been very moving to see new growth coming to life in the aftermath of the fire, and she’s noticed flowers she’s never seen before.

At first, walking around the burned landscape was “crushing,” she said, “Seeing so many charred skeletons (of nature) is hard.” Now, as new life emerges, she said it’s thrilling to see “something that’s so beautiful, come up through a bunch of ashy duff — this delicate flower and beautiful green leaf coming up out of something that’s so destructive and dark.”

The flowers she’s observed in a burned area in Ben Lomond include pussy ears, which she’d never seen before, and redwood violets.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is also participating in the project and helping to engage the wider community in partnership with the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History at UC Santa Cruz. They are leading tours of burned areas during which they train hikers to observe plants, animals and mushrooms, and use iNaturalist to document what they see. They’re also hosting online lectures and training in fire ecology.

Community science volunteers participating in an event led by the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum
Community science volunteers participating in an event led by the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum use their phones to take photos of lizard tracks, which will become part of the California Native Plant Society’s “Fire Followers” project.
(Santa Cruz Natural History Museum)

“After the CZU Lightning Complex came through our region, it was very emotionally impactful for our community members and very scary,” said Marisa Gomez, public programs manager at the museum. “That is definitely one side of grappling with fire in the Santa Cruz area, and in California, but fires are also a natural part of our ecosystem, and there are many plants that have adapted for fire over their existence.”

With its fire programming, the museum is “trying to create a foundation for people to understand the complexities of fire as an ecological agent for our community,” Gomez said.

“[We’re] acknowledging the human toll that it plays,” she said, “but also the benefits that it can add to an ecosystem, and really thinking about how we can move forward with living with fire as a part of our environment. Because it’s going to continue to be something that we’re going to have to deal with.”