ATASCADERO, Calif.-- What if beavers could help fight wildfires? A recent study from a Cal State Channel Islands professor indicates they can.
With much of California dry and brown, many experts say a year-round fire season is the new norm. But firefighters could get some help from an unlikely ally — beavers.
"These beaver ponds, they stay wet, they stay green and they are not burning anywhere as much as the places that don't have beavers,” said Emily Fairfax, a Professor of Environment Science at CSUCI.
Fairfax just finished a four-year study which found beavers help rejuvenate dry land, creating patches of wilderness that are essentially fire-proof.
We followed her to some beaver ponds in Atascadero to see first-hand.
"You will notice they didn't take every tree here,” said Fairfax. “So beavers do chew trees but they never over extract that resource from their environment."
Beavers only cut down what they need to build their dams, to lock in water and create ponds.
In the middle of the dry hillside, we see a patch of green land. A tell-tale sign of a beaver dam.
"We are actually at the beaver's dam and it is maybe only knee high,” said Fairfax. “It is not a super tall dam, but we can see this super lush wet land forming."
Beavers are a keystone species, meaning they shape their ecosystems by building dams that, in turn, create a wetland habitat where many other species thrive.
"In their absence, that ecosystem will collapse,” said Fairfax. “And so when beavers move into rivers like this they create wetland ecosystem, so there is all sorts of species of fish and frogs and birds and salamanders and everything else you can imagine that needs this ecosystem. Without the beavers these animals aren't going to make it."
Fairfax observed beaver dams before, during, and after wildfires, and her study found these wet patches don't burn.
"The more places that we have that are wet the less place we have to burn,” said Fairfax. “If every creek all over California looked like this, fires wouldn't be able to spread as far as they do."
Beavers aren't considered endangered, but their population numbers are low in North America. In California, it's against the law to relocate them.
"Which is a big bummer because there are lots of places where beavers are not everyone's favorite, and then there is lots of wilderness that needs beavers,” said Fairfax.
People have even tried to build dams themselves.
"And they do a bad job at it,” said Fairfax. “They try to create these systems, and luckily one of the things that beavers do is they like to take over beaver dam analogs. So if there is beavers nearby and you give them a head start, a lot of the times they will move and take it over."
So the next time you come across a beaver dam, leave it be. These animals are on the clock, hard at work fighting fires.