Heritage Fire burned over 300 trees in desert riparian conservation lands

April 28, 2022
Contact: Jessica Dacey, Director of Communications
Phone: 760-820-2275
Email: [email protected]

Heritage Fire burned over 300 trees in desert riparian conservation lands

March’s Heritage Fire burned over 300 mature trees and 34 acres of special-status species habitat along the Mojave River, according to a preliminary report by the Mojave Desert Land Trust.

In all, the Heritage Fire burned around 500 acres of the Oro Grande area of San Bernardino County. It breached the protected wildlife haven known as Palisades Ranch on March 14. 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.

Up to 10% of the property’s riparian conservation area was affected in the fire. Dramatic aerial images and on-the-ground assessments show the fire left a graveyard of trees and habitat. Photos show white ash around tree skeletons, signifying that temperatures reached over 300 degrees Celsius. Most of the destruction centered around the population of Fremont’s cottonwood trees which were around 40 years old and up to 60 feet tall. Around 14 acres of Fremont cottonwood forest burned. Around six acres of willow thickets and three acres of southern cattail and common reeds were also damaged.

This fire was especially devastating because riparian areas are rare in the desert. Palisades Ranch is one of the few locations along the Mojave River where water flows aboveground year-round.

Wildlife species that were likely impacted by the fire include beavers, Mojave river voles, and an abundance of migrating bird species including the federally endangered least Bell’s vireo. Spring is bird nesting season. Bird surveys in 2020 detected a federally threatened western yellow-billed cuckoo in one of the cottonwoods, two pairs of federally endangered least Bell’s vireo, and one of the westernmost breeding season records of a Lucy’s warbler, a special status species.

Palisades Ranch was acquired by the Mojave Desert Land Trust in 2018 with the goal of restoring and protecting this important West Mojave riparian corridor. In recent decades, the former agricultural fields at the property had become overgrown with invasive plant species including perennial pepperweed, which seriously impacted the native plant population. These invasive species also helped fuel the fire’s spread and increased temperature intensity.

Around 11 acres of perennial pepperweed and one acre of prickly Russian thistle burned in the fire. Although these invasive plant biomasses burned above ground, the root systems are likely still intact and are expected to return.

Assessments of the fire damage continue. Water channels from the river are expected to erode. The fire may have also impacted beaver dams on the property which help to create wildlife habitat and raise groundwater levels by impounding water.

Restoring this important habitat is one of the Mojave Desert Land Trust’s long-term priorities. An environmental services firm, SWCA, was retained in the last two years to help plan the restoration. Among other things, they have mapped the vegetation and soils, modeled the hydrology, measured the depth to groundwater at various locations, and conducted bird surveys. Groundwater well data and soil surveys will inform which plants can be grown and how the riparian system should be managed.

“We are heartbroken to see the loss of such rare riparian habitat for the Mojave Desert’s bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species. We are 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. We are grateful to San Bernardino County Fire Department, CalFire, and Victorville Fire Department for their rapid response and efforts to contain the burn, as well as other agencies that assisted,” said Joint Executive Directors Cody Hanford and Kelly Herbinson.

The property remains strictly closed to the public.

Note to editors:
A photo essay of the fire with captions can be seen here. The high resolution photos and a map of the burn area can be downloaded here.

The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization with the mission to protect and care for lands with natural, scenic, and cultural value within the Mojave Desert. Since its founding in 2006 the land trust has conserved over 125,000 acres, conveying more tracts of land to the National Park Service in the last decade than any other organization. In addition to acquiring land, the land trust established a seed bank to ensure the preservation of native species. MDLT operates an onsite nursery at its Joshua Tree headquarters which propagates native species for ecosystem restoration. MDLT educates and advocates for the conservation of the desert, involving hundreds of volunteers in our work. For more information, visit mdlt.org.