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Fire Impact on San Diego Water Sources and Watersheds

Fire Impact on San Diego Animals and Plants

Plants (By Habitat)

Fire Impact on San Diego Soils

Fire Impacts on People and Property

Additional Resources

Fire Impact on San Diego Water Sources and Watersheds

Although San Diego imports 80% of its water from outside the County, principally from the Colorado River, its watersheds are a vital life-line for the region, providing a water source for downstream communities and supporting remarkable animal and plant diversity across multiple habitats.  A watershed (or catchment basin) is the area of land that catches rain (and snow) that drains or seeps into a marsh, stream, river, lake, and eventually the ocean.  No matter where you live in San Diego, you are part of a specific watershed system. There are ten major watersheds, running East to Southwest, in San Diego County (see watershed map).

Photo by Barbara Barnes

Lake Cuyamaca drainage system severly damaged by 2003 fires (San Diego River Watershed)

The fires of October 2003 have greatly impacted some of San Diego's largest watersheds.  To date, initial damage assessments are only available for the Cedar and Otay fires. But it is clear the Paradise fire impacted the San Diguito Watershed and also the San Luis Rey Watershed, while the Roblar 2 fire on Camp Pendleton, much smaller in size at only 8,600 acres, may have impacted the San Luis Rey Watershed coincidentally.

Nearly 70%, or 190,000 acres, of the San Diego watershed was burned to some extent in the Cedar fire. The greatest damage, in excess of 90% of the total drainage area in each habitat, was to Mixed Conifer Forest, Oak Woodlands, Freshwater Marsh’s/MountainMeadows/Vernal Pools, Chaparral, and Coastal Sage Scrub habitats.  The Otay fire impacted about 30% of the Otay watershed,involving 28,000 acres. Habitats impacted most severely in that region, in excess of 50% of total habitat acreage in the watershed drainage system, were Mixed Conifer Forest and Coastal Sage Scrub.

Most of the post-fire watershed sampling has been in the San Diego River Watershed.  The destruction of vegetative canopies and the loss (i.e., removal) of litter and other decomposed organic matter from soil surfaces can be expected to increase runoff.  Typically, this increases surface soil erosion, soil nutrient loss by leaching, soil mass movement (e.g., landslides), sedimentation and turbidity in stream channels and reservoirs, water temperature, stream flow discharge, all of which can result in a decline in water quality. Erosion is typically highest the first year following burning, and can be increased further by high rainfall levels.

Immediate watershed effects will likely be seen in the alteration of the water habitat, affecting fish, amphibians, and insects.  Increased water turbidity reduces the depth to which sunlight can penetrate into the water thereby decreasing the rate of photosynthesis of aquatic plants and reducing oxygen levels in the water.  Water temperature, another critical water quality characteristic of most streams, greatly affects the survival of certain plants and animals.  The removal of streambank vegetation by fire can cause water temperature to rise further (because it is no longer shaded by the vegetation canopy), decreasing the amount of dissolved oxygen available to aquatic life (see illustration).The cumulative effect of fire on watersheds, especially the post-fire effects of increased erosion and sedimentation, can severely impact overall habitat recovery. 

see map of Cedar Fire watershed treatments

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Fire Impact on San Diego Animals and Plants

It is too early to tell how each plant and animal species is doing, but signs of recovery are appearing throught the San Diego backcountry. Recovery depends in large part on habitat structure and available food sources.

   Mammals, Insects, Birds

Deer: There were an estimated 2,500 in the County prior to the fire, with 1,000 residing in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.  The Cedar fire damaged 99% of the park and other deer habitat, resulting in an estimated loss of 10-20 percent of the deer population County-wide.  However, the fire opened up the Mixed Conifer Forest and Oak Woodlands, and these habitats should be highly favorable for the remaining deer population.

Mountain lions: There was one verified death in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park due to fire. The female lion, attracted to the terrified deer leaving the burning area, burned her paws severely and was unable to hunt.  She was not killed directly by the fire but eventually starved to death because of her injuries.  Three mature lions and three cubs remain in the park (see Mountain Lions).

Photo by Barbara Barnes

Severe fire damage on Stonewall Peak, 2004 (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)       

Coyotes and bobcats: These species already appear to be approaching pre-fire activity in burned areas.

Rats and mice:  Burrowing rodents, like kangaroo rats and pocket mice, survived the fast moving fires by remaining underground.  They also had food caches, stashed reserves of food which can be used directly following fire when other food resources may be scarce.

Wood rats: This species experienced high mortality in burn areas because they live aboveground in large nests built of sticks. Recovery will be tied to regeneration of dense chaparral and scub oak habitats.

Rabbits, raccoons, skunks: There was high mortality in the severe burn areas but these species should recover quickly.

Photo by Barbara Barnes   

View of Cuyamaca Peak from Stonewall, 2004 (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park)   


Insects: The rare Thorne’s hairstreak butterfly found only in association with Tecate Cypress on Otay Mountain was feared lost, but recent evidence indicates survival in unburned tree stands.  Hermes copper butterfly is also threatened due to a 40% loss of its habitat, spiny redberry plants, found around the county.


  Photo by Doug Aguillard                                                 © 2000 Scott Streit                           

Thorne's hairstreak                                     California Gnatcatcher (Threatened)

Birds:  San Diego County provides habitat for over 5,000 species of breeding or migratory birds. Some of these are listed as endangered, threatened, or species of special concern by State and Federal agencies.  Most survived the fires by fleeing, but their habitat did not; actual species losses are unknown at this time.  Hardest hit are canopy dwelling species, such as, owls, nuthatches, woodpeckers, brown creepers. This particular habitat will be one of the slowest to recover from the fires. Birds living in the understory, the brush below the trees that is expected to recover more quickly, were also displaced by the fires, including towhees, thrashers, wrentits, and wrens.  Birds needing dense shade and cover, such as the spotted owl, have probably left the area.  The fires delayed the breeding of raptors, hawks and eagles, and forced them to relocate.  But new growth, which attracts small rodents, will favor the hunting of birds of prey.


   © 2000 Scott Streit       

Greater Roadrunner                                                Rufous-Crowned Sparrow

As a result of the fires, a concentration of individuals and species in remaining unburned patches, may result in increased competition for resources, increased susceptibility to nest predation, increased susceptibility to nest parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, and other density-dependent community effects. Coastal Sage Scrub/Chaparral/Grassland mosaic species of potential concern include California Gnatcatcher (federally threatened), Rufous-crowned sparrow and the Greater roadrunner.  Riparian species of particular concern include the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher and the Least Bell’s vireo. Wetland species of particular concern include the federally endangered Light-footed clapper rail. Estuary habitat is increasingly rare for rails (as well as for other species, such as the state endangered Belding’s Savannah Sparrow).  Raptors species of particular concern include the California spotted owl, Bald eagle, and Golden eagle, and possibly the Burrowing owl.

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   Plants (divided by habitat)

San Diego County is remarkable for its extremely high and unique plant diversity.  The areas burned in the 2003 wildfires included areas with some of the greatest diversity.

Beach, Salt Marsh, Lagoon Habitat.  There were no fire impacts on this habitat.

Coastal Sage Scrub Habitat.  Approxiamtely 70,000 acres in different parts of the County were affected by the fires, either, severely, moderately, or partially.  This involved 31% of the total habitat. The characteristic plant species found in this habitiat are California sagebrush, flat-topped buckwheat, white sage, black sage, and laurel sumac. Coastal sage scrub supports a number of endemic species that are candidates for listing or have been listed as rare and endangered.  The Torrey Pine, for example, is located within this habitat, but was not affected by the fires.  Although the dominant plant communities are adapted to periodic fire, the size and characteristics of the 2003 fires have created opportunities for invasive weed species to become established. Particularly vulnerable areas are south facing slopes in the San Diego River and Harbison Canyon and Crest areas, and the south side and lower slopes of Otay Mountain. Furthermore, the animal species relying on this habitat may be affected by the scale of the impact. Specifically, the California Gnatcatcher, a Federally listed Threatened species, requires coastal sage scrub.

Photo by Barbara Barnes

Torrey Pines and other plants and animals in this habitat were unaffected by the 2003 fires

Grassland Habitat. A variety of grassland locations burned during the fire, especially parts of Barona Valley.  Approximately 18,000 acres were burned to some degree, about 12% of the County total.  Grassland habitats within these burned areas were predominantly those supporting non-native plants, but all grasslands also contain a number of native species as well.  Of the nearly 200 varieties of grasses that grow in San Diego County, most are non-native.  Some of the characteristic species in this habitat are cheat grass, red brome,  ryegrass, deergrass, wild oats, filaree, mustard, and clover.  Grassland habitats are relatively resilient to fire. Grasslands provide habitat for endangered species of rodents and raptor foraging. Areas of this habitat that may require rehabilitation are those that were altered during fire fighting, by the construction of fuel breaks and fire lines.

 Recovering grassland at the base of Iron Mountain near Poway                    Photo by Barbara Barnes

Chaparral Habitat. Chaparral of various types is the predominant vegetation community in San Diego County and provides an extensive wildlife habitat for the region.  Approxiamtely 23% of the chaparral habitat burned to some extent, most moderately, involving 183,000 acres throughout the County.  The characteristic plant species in this habitat are ceanothus (13 different subspecies), scrub oak, manzanita (three dominant subspecies: Eastwood, Big-Berry, and Mexican), red shank, toyon, bush monkyflower, and chamise.  This type of vegetation needs to be monitored to insure that weed species do not displace the natural chaparral components as they recover from the fire. Erosion control measures have also been recommended for specific key locations.

Burned chaparral habitat at the Daley Ranch                                                        Photo by Barbara Barnes

Oak Woodland Habitat. Approxiamtely 31,000 acres of this habitat burned, most moderately or partially, involving 26% of the total habitat. The characteristic species are several varieties of scrub oak, coast live oak, California black oak, and canyon live oak.  Somewhat smaller oak populations consist of Englemann oak, interior live oak, and Oracle oak.  Under normal conditions, oak woodland vegetation is relatively resistant to fires.  However, intense heat during extreme fire conditions may have killed drought and disease stressed oaks. See 2007 follow-up article on oak die off.

Photo by Marcello Mastrocola

In some areas of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park oak woodlands were totally destroyed (2004)

Riparian Habitat (Streamsides).  Riparian habitats in San Diego (streamside vegetation consisting of deciduous trees and shrubs) can be found throughout the County but account for only 58,000 acres, or 3.4% of the total area.  However, these habitats provide riverbank protection, erosion control, improved water quality, and critical habitat for plants such as sycamore, cottonwood, willow, and numerous bird, mammal, reptile, and amphibian species.  Approxiamtely 7,000 acres, or 12 percent of the total riparian habitat, were burned during the 2003 wildfires.

Boulder Creek (Pre-2003 fires)                                          Photo by Jimmy Smith


Boulder Creek (September, 2004)        Photo by Jimmy Smith

Freshwater Marsh/Montane (mountain) Meadow/Vernal Pool Habitats.  Even when combined, the total area of this composite habitat is only 18,500 acres, or about 1.0% of the County’s total area.  Nevertheless, each habitat component is especially unique and the 3,300 acres involved in the 2003 fires (17.8% of the habitat) is of concern due to the rare, threatened, and endangered species found in some of these areas and only in San Diego County.

San Diego also supports a unique set of ecosystems referred to as vernal pools.  Soil depressions on the mesas regularly fill with rainwater and then dry out during the summer months.  Starting with the first rains, a variety of uniquely adapted plants and animals emerge from the soil to create a wetland community that lasts only a few months before   going dormant, including the endangered San Diego mesa mint, San Diego button celery, Otay Mesa mint, San Diego fairy shrimp, and Riverside fairy shrimp.  In the Cedar fire, vernal pool habitats burned in eleven areas, including   the Miramar Marine base and Tierrasanta.  In the Otay fire, vernal pools on the mesas around Lower Otay reservoir were affected.   Invasive weed species, soil alteration, and water quality could be problems in all of these locations.   Careful field monitoring will be required to assess the impact of the 2003 fires on this already threatened subhabitat.

Sunset trail in the Laguna Mountains cuts through a meadow               Photo by Barbara Barnes    

Mixed Confier Forest Habitat. The Cedar fire destroyed 99% of the 26,000 acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, including 500 year old growth pine forests in the vicinity of Cuyamaca Lake.  The characteristic species here are ponderosa, Coulter, Jeffrey, and sugar pine, white fir, and incense cedar.  A total of 25,000 acres burned, accounting for 32% of the total habitat in the county. The combination of dense undergrowth and diseased and dead trees from bark beetle infestation created conditions for hot crown fires  that likely killed all conifers. It appears little old growth forest survived intact on the Cuyamaca Mountains.  It is unclear whether significant amounts of reseeding will occur from burned cones.

Base of North Peak, Cuyamaca Rancho State Park (2004)                             Photo by Barbara Barnes

King Creek on the west side of Cuyamaca Peak supports Cuyamaca cypress. Those trees are included within this habitat.

Otay Mountain likewise supports the world’s largest population of Tecate cypress

(Rare).  Both were affected by the 2003 fires to some extent, futher reducing the population distribution. Particularly, those areas that burned in the Otay fire in 1996 which were reburned in 2003. Young Tecate cypress were not large enough to produce many cones and enough seed to replace themselves, placing the population at risk.

Summit trail on Stonewall Peak (Cuyamaca Rancho State Park), 2004       Photo by Barbara Barnes


Desert Habitat.   There were no fire impacts on this habitat.

map of Cedar Fire vegetation mortality

map of Paradise Fire vegitation mortality

map of Otay Fire vegetation mortality

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Fire Impact on San Diego Soils

Soil is a critically important component of all ecosystems by supplying air, water, nutrients, and mechanical support for plants. Fire-related changes in soil produce a wide range of effects, and vary by heat intensity and habitat. Two immediate effects are the direct damage to soil microrganisms and vegitation, and the release of gases and other air pollutants as a result of combustion. Long term effects are often more subtle but can last for years. These include soil productivity as it relates to nutrient cycling, water absorption capacity, and erosion.

All soil types are comprised of horizontal layers called “soil horizons.” These layers are formed over long periods of time as a result of weathering, decomposition, synthesis of new substances, and relocation of materials vertically as a result of water movement. The arrangement and properties of horizons in a soil profile are significant when evaluating the impacts of soil heating.


Most soils contain four basic components: mineral particles, water, air, and organic matter. Organic matter can be further sub-divided into humus, roots, and living organisms. The values given below are for a typical soil sample.



Soil temperatures resulting from forest fires, for example, vary depending on the duff (leaf litter, humus, and decomposed organic matter = horizon O and A layers) layer and fire characteristics. Cool-burning surface fires heat the soil less than hot, stand-replacing wildfires. Thicker soil duff can act as a soil heat insulator in low to moderate severity fires.

For hotter burning fires, a water-repellent layer is frequently formed. This is referred to as a hydrophobic condition, and is more likely with coarse textured soils. After intense heating a hydrophobic layer is produced when a waxy substance derived from plant material burned during a fire penetrates into the soil as a gas and forms a waxy coating around soil particles. Hydrophobic soils repel water, reducing the amount of infiltration that can occur, resulting in increased winter peak storm flows and significant soil erosion. Depending on the intensity of the fire, hydrophobic layers can persist for a number of years, especially if they are relatively thick. The hydrophobic layer is generally 1⁄2 inch to 3 inches beneath the soil surface and is commonly as much as 1 inch thick.

Two important erosion processes usually occur following wildfires. Dry ravel formation   occurs during and after fire on steep slopes where gravity naturally moves loose material released by the fire downhill. This is illustrated in Southern California where loose soil and rock materials are often held in place on steep slopes by shrubs, such as Coastal sage scrub and chaparral. High-intensity fire burns the shrubs and releases the material; gravity pushes the released material into channels at the base of steep slopes until increased streamflow moves it further along.

Rill formation occurs when rainfall exceeds infiltration capacity resulting in increased surface runoff. A striking feature of newly burned watersheds during the first winter storms is the accumulation of extensive rill networks. This is highly correlated with hydrophobic soil conditions.

The 2003 wildfires produced some extremely hot zones, as the soil severity maps below reveal. Impacts on soils in most of San Diego's watersheds and in mixed conifer forests are expected to be significant and long lasting consistent with the phenomena described above.

maps of soil burn severity

map of erosion/landslide potential

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Fire Impacts on People and Property

For the most part, the immediate crisis needs of emergency food, shelter, clothing, energy, and safety following the 2003 San Diego wildfires were met by the first responders (e.g., American Red Cross and Salvation Army) (San Diego Foundation, 2003).

Specific communities throughout San Diego County affected by the fires were remarkably different in terms of damage sustained and resources available for immediate and longer term rebuilding. Nevertheless, there were similar needs and issues.

The single most important need in each community was temporary housing and rebuilding structures lost to the fires. Fire victims generally wanted to remain in their communities, keep their children in their schools, and manage the rebuilding of their homes. Many separate groups were mobilized to address this basic need. The San Diego Disaster Recovery Coalition intended to address this need over the next three to five years by raising four to ten million dollars, mostly from faith-based institutions, and by bringing in a variety of skilled, home-building volunteer groups.

Other important issues addressed across all impacted communities were:

• Financial assistance, planning, insurance, and uninsured assistance;

• Mental health counseling;

• Assistance to special populations: elderly, disabled, underserved populations;

• Assistance with coordinating rebuilding activities;

• Employment assistance;

• Disaster preparedness and safety issues;

• Temporary housing and care of animals of individuals displaced by fires; and

• Fire clean up and debris removal.



Photos by John Gibbons/San Diego Union-Tribune

Cedar Fire sweeps into Scripss Ranch

Rebuilding Communities

During and immediatley following the 2003 wildfires remarkable stories emerged of individual and community needs, heroism, generosity and sacrifice. Various media outlets reported on these for amny months following the fires. Additionally, civic organizations formed and reformed, to address the immediate needs of victims for food, clothing, and shelter. These same organizations faced the considerable challenges in terms of adapting to long-term community recovery and rebuilding needs. It was also clear that community resources varied more widely in this programmatic area than in any other.

Most of the community organizations raised money for local fire victims and were publicly committed to giving every dollar to individuals in need. As a result, many individuals in community organizations were paying out-of-pocket for simple operational expenses such as paper and toner cartridges. Some community organizations were meeting in borrowed, unheated tents or other temporary spaces. Leadership capacity and social capital varied, with some specific communities in dire need of support in this area.

Other important needs included:

• Opening lines of communication and working relationships with those who were      affected by the fire and all whose task it was to assist in rebuilding;

• Providing information collection and dissemination points with newsletters, websites, and community work groups (e.g. neighborhood security, mudslide

prevention, insurance coordination);

• Strategic planning retreats for community groups;

• Rebuilding civic centers, landmarks, and parks; and

• Periodically organizing events that publicly celebrated and marked progress in a

community’s rebuilding efforts.

Photo by Associated Press

Fire engulfs home in Scripps Ranch area


Rebuilding the Nonprofit Sector

During the emergency response phase, many nonprofit organizations spent much of their operating budgets meeting the immediate needs of victims, therefore exhausting their ability to fulfill their primary mission. Some of these agencies were gearing up to provide long-term rebuilding support to local communities. In many cases, there appeared to be little communication occurring between the civic associations and non-profit organizations. Better communication among these entities in the future would greatly help all groups function more effectively.

Community Summaries

This grouping of post-fire impacts by communities is both qualitative and preliminary, and based entirely on the “After-the-Fires Community Assessment” conducted by the San Diego Foundation. The number of houses destroyed or damaged in each community reflects data primarily from SanGIS and the San Diego County Loss Report as of December 5, 2003.


Group I. These communities suffered extensive losses. They faced considerable challenges to full recovery based on the following factors: income, percent uninsured, leadership, social capital, and organizational capacity.

• Harbison Canyon (population 3,640) lost 307 homes (75 percent) with estimates that up to 40 percent were uninsured. The Harbison Canyon Management Team meet in a temporary tent and had limited capacity with respect to disaster management.

• Julian Area (Santa Ysabel/Wynola/Julian/Cuyamaca) (population 1621) lost 660 homes according to County reports. Of these, 25 to 50 percent were vacation homes. In particular, Cuyamaca suffered extensive damage, losing 159 homes (75 percent). The Julian community mounted an impressive emergency response, mostly coordinated by the Julian Chamber of Commerce. However, the needs were great, and volunteer and fiscal resources were limited.


Group II. These communities also endured significant losses. However, they appeared somewhat better positioned fo recovery based on the factors of income, insurance, leadership, social capital, and organizational capacity.

• Alpine (population 13,143) 185 had homes destroyed or damaged. Att eh time of this assessment, there was little in the way of coordinated recovery planning.

• Crest (population 2,716) had 301 homes destroyed or damaged (30 percent) as well as losing their Community Association building. This community had many needs and was struggling to find resources. However, the Crest Community Association appeared well organized and was developing impressive abilities to manage the disaster recovery/rebuilding efforts.

• Lakeside (population 19,560) reported that 296 homes and the Audubon Society’s Wildlife preserve were destroyed and damaged. Twelve members of the community lost their lives in Wildcat Canyon. Lakeside had a well-established civic group that operated effectively to aid fire victims. However, at the time of this assessment they have yet to establish a formal rebuilding coalition.

• Ramona Area (population 15,691) lost 215 homes, 120 in the Mussey Grade community where it was estimated that up to two-thirds are uninsured. About 72 of the destroyed and damaged homes were located in the higher income area called San Diego Country Estates, which had a population of 9,262. The Ramona community had an effective emergency response via a number of different agencies. It was not clear how well coordinated the long-term rebuilding response would be.

• Valley Center (population 15,525) reported 167 residences lost. This unincorporated rural community included four low-income Indian tribes (La Jolla, San Pasqual, Rincon, and Pala) and a large migrant population. Recently the Paradise Community Collaborative was formed to coordinate services provided by health and human services agencies.


Photo by John Gibbons/San Diego-Union Tribune

The Cedar fire claimed about 350 homes in Scripps Ranch. Pictured above

is the devastation on Pinecastle Street.


Group III. These communities either endured less loss or were judged to have excellent organization capacity for responding to the fire impacts.

• Barona Reservation (population 573) lost at least 35 of its 160 homes, according to published reports. It also lost its school and Head Start Center. The Tribal Council was addressing the needs of its tribe members and planned to rebuild lost homes using its own resources, with some FEMA support.

• Descanso/Guatay (population 1,575) lost 52 homes, mostly single family dwellings which were insured. The community responded largely in a neighbor-to-neighbor fashion, which appeared to be functioning effectively.

• Poway/Scripps Ranch/Tierrasanta (population 106,484), according to County data, lost at least 330 homes, 85 percent of which were in Scripps Ranch. The Scripps Ranch Civic Association documented 342 homes destroyed or damaged in its neighborhood. These middle to high-income neighborhoods had strong, organized networks of civic organization and faith-based communities. Relative to the other communities covered by this assessment, they are effectively responding to the needs of all fire-victims in the area.

Photo by K.C. Alfred/San Diego-Union-Tribune

 San Diego Firefighter Jay Lee sprays a burning home in vain on Rue Chamberry in

Scripps Ranch on Sunday, October 26, 2003

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Additional Resources

•Final BAER CLOSE-OUT REPORT (November 17, 2003)


download PowerPoint Slide Show

(click here)



Initial Assessment of Burn Areas by Watershed (Table)

Initial Assessment of Burn Areas on NCCP  Planning Areas (Table)

Initial Assessment of Burn Impacts on Vegitation Types (Table)

Initial Assessment of Burn Impacts on Predicted Species Distributions (Table)

Initial Assessment of Burn Severity on Vegitation Types  (Table)


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Photo Credits:

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Graphic of blue bar
Copyright 2004 San Diego State University Foundation