Forest fires play a crucial role in natural life cycles — it's just that human activity is exacerbating that rhythm. In order to give Mother Nature a leg up after the flames cease, Santa Cruz researchers are using oyster mushrooms to help break down the ash from previous wildfires.
Technically speaking, we're not even in wildfire season yet; that's not going to happen until the beginning of June. But the Bay Area is already seeing Red Flag Warnings, brush fires, and other signs of an impending wildfire season that could rival last year's historically destructive one.
Once a forest is scorched and scared by blazes, it can take as long as 80 years for soil compositions and plant fauna to fully recover — a healing process that's happening far too many times because of the climate crisis. Suffice to say eight decades is a long time for any single ecosystem to get back to square one.
That's why a team of Bay Area researchers are experimenting with the idea of introducing oyster mushrooms to speed up that process, potentially also helping mitigate the risk of future wildfires.
The Energy Release Component (ERC) is like a drought indicator for fuels. It takes into account both live and dead fuels as well as large (timber) and small (grasses). It does NOT take wind into account so its more seasonal than daily in use. Yellow shows we are at record hi. pic.twitter.com/vXTfAUk2cz— NWS Bay Area (@NWSBayArea) May 9, 2021
CoRenewal (formerly known as Amazon MycoRenewal Project) is a nonprofit organization that's dedicated its work to ecosystem restoration — here in the Bay Area and elsewhere across the world. The cohort of scientists works in tandem to develop nature-based solutions to human-caused environmental damage, with a recent focus on wildfire pollution.
Three of its current projects — "Fungal Facilitation and Fire" and "Post-Fire Watershed Defense" — explore the benefits of strategically growing fungi, which include varieties of oyster mushroom, to reduce acidic water runoff and help breakdown toxic ash into bio-available compounds. (While cleansing rains after a fire help put out lingering embers, they're also responsible for ash-runoffs entering surrounding waterways that can cause mass die-offs of fish, amphibians, and other aquatic or semi-aquatic life.)
But there's another conceivable upside to introducing these fungi: less dead ground cover plants that might otherwise be burned during a wildfire.
When fungi begin decomposing organisms, be it flora or fauna, they help to release crucial elements back into the soil for later utilization by the surrounding nature. A welcome byproduct off this natural process is that fewer fallen leaves and pieces of timber are left to potentially kindle. (Conversely, when an ecosystem is out of balance and natural-occurring fungi are in low numbers, it aids in creating an environment ripe for wildfires.)
At the moment, CoRenewal is conducting experiments in Santa Cruz — inside an area burned by the CZU Lighting Complex Fire — and Butte County, where participating scientists and volunteers are collaborating with land managers to assess the efficacy of this environmental initiative. Both projects are largely supported by federal grant money and partnered universities, like Sydney Glassman’s Fungal Ecology Lab at UC Riverside, and will continue on for some time until enough data is gathered.
For more information on CoRenewal, as well as how you can help aid their efforts, visit amazonmycorenewal.org.
Conserve water when and where you can. Lighten your carbon footprint. And for all that's left holy on this mortal coil: hold off on the pyrotechnic gender reveal parties this summer — for, like, ever.
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