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Could ‘Smokey Beaver’ help fight wildfires?

Beaver’s are known as “nature’s engineers” because of the way they reshape the landscape with dams and canals, turning simple streams into messy wetlands.
Brandon Swanson / OPB

The Almeda Fire swept through the Southern Oregon communities of Phoenix and Talent in 2020, burning thousands of buildings and taking three lives. Part of the reason it was so devastating is that it burned right through the hearts of the towns along the Bear Creek Greenway, a greenbelt full of invasive blackberry bushes and other dried-out plants that acted as a wick.

Seven months after the fire, Jakob Shockey and Sarah Koenigsberg were searching the greenway for a furry critter that may have helped slow the flames.

“Oh, there’s a bunch of nibbling over here,” said Koenigsberg, pointing to teeth marks in the bark of a tree near the creek.

When you think of preventing wildfires, you probably think of Smokey Bear. But there’s another animal that plays a much bigger role in fighting and recovering from fire: beavers.

Scientists have long considered the aquatic rodents to be “nature’s engineers,” because they reshape the ecosystem around them into wetlands. But recently scientists have made a new discovery: these beaver wetlands create emerald oases in an otherwise charred landscape, slowing down the spread of wildfires and providing refuges for animals to escape the flames.

Shockey and Koenigsberg help run a nonprofit called the Beaver Coalition and are part of a growing movement to transform the way we see the big-tailed rodents (before working with the Beaver Coalition, Koenigsberg directed a documentary about the movement called “The Beaver Believers”).

“Many folks have been coming to beaver, as we’re looking at water scarcity, and as we’re looking at how do we most impactfully build resiliency into our landscape,” said Shockey, a wildlife biologist and the executive director of the group. “So the Beaver Coalition sort of grew out of that, and our goal — why we exist — is to empower humans to partner with beaver.”

Two people look at a beaver dam and pond in downtown Phoenix
Jakob Shockey and Sarah Koenigsberg of the Beaver Coalition look at the beaver pond in downtown Phoenix, which may have saved the Phoenix Civic Center from the Almeda Fire. “Beaver are the ecosystem engineer for this landscape,” said Shockey. “We can play at it, but they’re the professionals. So we need to defer to the professionals.”

If you’re asking, “why would humans want to partner with beavers,” one reason becomes clear as the pair looked down on a dam beavers built in downtown Phoenix not long before the fire. The pond it created, along with a smaller stormwater retention pond, appeared to have slowed the flames and may have even protected the nearby Phoenix Civic Center from burning, Shockey said.

And now the dam is filtering ash from the water for salmon and other animals living downstream.

“Just think about how much toxic sludge is now in this pond from the fire run off,” said Koenigsberg, pointing at the stagnant gray-black water above the dam, and the clear water trickling from its base. “Look at how nasty it is [in the pond] and how clean it is [below the dam]. You can’t ask for better.”

To understand what beavers have to do with fire, first we have to understand a little more about the animals themselves.

Beavers are awkward on land, making them easy pickings for predators. But they’re graceful in water. So they build dams to create ponds and wetlands for self-protection.

“So if you ask someone to imagine a healthy stream or to draw a healthy stream, what they think of often is this little thin stream winding through the landscape,” said Emily Fairfax, an assistant professor in the Environmental Science and Resource Management Program at California State University Channel Islands. “It’s cool; it’s clear. And that, unfortunately, in most cases is not what streams should be looking like.”

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