Watch CBS News

A look at beavers' important role in California's wildfire resistance

Beavers play a critical part in California's wildlife protection
Beavers play a critical part in California's wildlife protection 03:09

SACRAMENTO — Nature's firefighters might not be what you think.

Beavers. They've had a bad reputation. Many call them pests, but they're far from it. They play such an important role in our ecosystem that their work can even curtail wildfires. Beavers are a keystone species, which means their existence benefits many types of plants and animals.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) is recognizing the role beavers play, implementing a beaver restoration program just last year to aid in drought and wildfire resistance.

"Beaver wetlands are uniquely resistant to the effects of drought and then subsequently to the effects of wildfire," said Emily Fairfax, who is an assistant professor of geography.

For generations, beavers have been classified as a nuisance. Hundreds of permits are sought after each year by landowners to allow them to kill beavers.

Their knack for engineering doesn't always agree with human engineering. We like to build roads and houses. They like to flood everything and chew down wood.

"While that can be annoying, it's that flooding and tree chewing that gives you those benefits like drought and fire resistance," Fairfax said.

"As we build more and more in California, and in other states, we actually are eliminating wetlands and the beavers try to put them back in," said wildlife rescuer Michele Dodge.

Without beavers, we could face total degradation of our riverscapes, causing more wildfires. In fact, research is showing their work is helping to prevent wildfires altogether, and that's why the DFW is turning to beavers as a helpful tool.

"I've been studying this the last ten years or so using satellite data and field visits to go out and find these places where beavers have been engineering and see whether or not they burn during wildfire," Fairfax said. "Pretty much across the board, they're not burning."

Beavers create patches of fire refugia, places that either don't burn at all or burn at a low intensity that's actually helpful for a variety of plants and animals. The patches are fireproof in even our most intense fires like the Beckwourth and Dixie fires.

"You're going to be seeing forests that have completely burned the pine trees from roots to tips. The soil is ash at this point and it's silent cut to, and then you turn the corner and you'll get to the beaver wetland and it's completely different," Fairfax said.

Even in Rancho Cordova, the beavers are helping the environment thrive. Their dams create a safe place for geese to nest and lay their eggs.

"It also creates a safe zone, so if there is a fire animals have a place to retreat," Dodge said.

In the beaver wetlands, you'll find lush green landscapes full of life. Beavers like to spread the water around, essentially creating a safe haven from a wildfire. Now with the DFW's restoration program, beavers have a place to go.

"I'm really excited they've done that," Dodge said. "In the past, if somebody trapped beavers they were killed that was the only solution. Now all the sudden, fish and wildlife, we are creating places we want them released."

The best part is we don't have to pay these guys. They just do it for free because that's what they're naturally inclined to do. They're nature's tool against wildfires.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.