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Four Legged Firefighters? South Coast Researcher Says Beavers Play Role In Creating Fire Breaks For Wildfires

Photo by Emily Fairfax
A South Coast researcher says the dams and waterways created by beavers can serve as fuel breaks in wildfires.

Beaver dams, waterways also help ease drought impacts.

Everyone’s heard of America’s poster boy for fighting wildfires, Smokey Bear. But, a South Coast researcher says Smokey is getting some real-life help from the animal world, a friend she calls Smokey the Beaver.

Dr. Emily Fairfax is a ecohydrologist with Cal State Channel Islands. She’s been studying beavers. Fairfax says something beavers do in their everyday lives to protect themselves against predators can also help stop wildfires.

"The beaver is pretty awkward on land. They are a round, fatty mammal, and they are easy pickings for predators," said Fairfax. "One of their first orders of business for them is to build a dam. And, by building that dam, they can create a little pond they can live in, and be safe in."

There really is something to the expression “busy as a beaver”. Fairfax says they are incredibly industrious. "From that pond, they dig all these little canals out into the landscape," said Fairfax. "Those canals are like water highways."

The next result of the beavers work is a safe home for them, and a firebreak which can help stop wildfires. The water helps keep the landscape green, making the area harder to burn.

Photo by Emily Fairfax
Ecohydrologist Dr. Emily Fairfax at a beaver dam near Atascadero.

The ecohydrologist says her research has documented instances where beaver ponds have served has wildfire fuel breaks. But, the research also shows that they don’t necessarily work in a major firestorm, because wind blows embers across the breaks.

Dr. Fairfax says we have beavers on the Central and South Coasts, but it appears the largest concentrations in our region are in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties.

The Cal State Channel Islands researcher says while her research shows the beaver dams and waterways can serve as natural firebreaks, she wants to learn more about how often it's happened, and what happens in megafires.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.