Fire at Bernard Field Station Rekindles Scientists' Concerns

 Professor Wallace Meyer, Dakota Spear PO '15, and Kristen Park PZ '17 do research at the Bernard Field Station in 2014. (Courtesy of Pomona College / Michelle Chan)

While the property appears undamaged from the road around it, approximately five acres of the Claremont Colleges’ Bernard Field Station on Foothill Boulevard burned in a brush fire on May 18.

For the field station’s scientists, the greatest concern now is the fire’s potential impact on the field station’s ecosystem and the endangered vegetation that grows there.

“The issue in southern California is that when disturbances become too common, type-conversion can occur. Type-conversion is the shift from the native and endangered shrub-dominated California sage scrub ecosystem to a non-native grassland,” Bernard Field Station director and Pomona professor Wallace Meyer wrote in an email to TSL.

Bernard Field Station scientists are working to map the affected area and determine the precise extent of the damage. They also plan to conduct research projects based on observations of the fire’s effects, Meyer said.

Meyer does not believe that the fire will negatively impact current projects at the field station.

This is the second time the field station has burned in the past four years. In 2013, sparks from a Golden State Water company worksite alongside the field station flew over 15 feet in the air into the field station. These instances are an unlucky coincidence, according to Meyer.

“It has nothing to do with the flammability of the sage scrub. For instance, the Pitzer outback, vegetation in the pit and other non-irrigated vegetation along Foothill Blvd is just as likely to burn. It is just that the BFS has been unfortunate to endure two fires in the last 4 years,” Meyer wrote.

Nevertheless, Meyer warns that people should be especially careful around the endangered sage scrub at Bernard Field Station and elsewhere.

“Because it is the dominate ecosystem of low-elevation areas of southern California, more than 90% [of sage scrub] been lost to urban/suburbanization and agriculture,” Meyer wrote. “If we are to preserve the diverse and amazing flora and fauna in the California sage scrub system we need to take extra care and limit fires in these remaining fragments.”

Moreover, this fire, which began before the traditional fire season, portends a severe season this summer, according to Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College.

“The Foothill fire ignited early, too early,” Miller wrote in a guest opinion column for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. “Normally, fast-moving brush fires do not erupt in Southern California until late summer or early fall.”

This early fire may seem especially unusual given that California received heavy rain this winter, which Governor Jerry Brown claimed had ended California’s six year drought. However, according to Miller, vegetation remained dry because the drought is not yet over.

“The drought is not over, at least not in the Southland. Although the region received more precipitation than at any time in the preceding half-decade or so, this winter actually brought only average rainfall,” Miller wrote.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but fire investigators are confident that the fire was human caused, not natural, and have found evidence of illegal fireworks, according to Assistant Fire Chief Jim Enriquez.

The fire was extinguished by twelve fire engines, one water tender, four camp crews, and three helicopters from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, according to an email message from Campus Safety to the student body on May 18.