Recent photos from San Diego and San Bernardino brought it all
back: the moonscape that was our backcountry 10 years ago. The wind
blew streamers of black ash from ridge tops, and the whole landscape
was suddenly unfamiliar terrain.
Numbed with shock, we visited Laguna Coast Wilderness Park with
Ranger Larry Sweet just 10 days after the fire. Water was running in
Smoldering Live Oak logs emitted wisps of smoke. Stones littered
the roads, released from the hillside when the shrubs holding them in
place burned away. Vultures circled in the sky.
Everything we saw was black and gray except for a handful of tiny
green shoots in one small patch. They were just nonnative European
grass, but they signaled that the recovery was already underway.
Fresh spider webs carpeted the ground, and new pocket gopher diggings
What's it like out there today? At one level, the park seems to
have recovered. Here and there, a burned stump is a reminder of 1993,
but otherwise the scars have faded. Hillsides are covered with
vegetation, birds bounce from tree to tree. Under the oaks is a thick
layer of crunchy leaf litter -- oaks grow their own mulch. In the
canyons, the familiar tangle of shrubs and vines includes dead
branches from plants that regrew from the ground up ten years ago.
This could indicate that we are approaching a mature vegetation.
At another level, however, we have not returned to the prefire
Some invasive weeds, especially tree tobacco, are still
flourishing. Much of the hillside vegetation is bush mallow, a native
shrub that was extremely rare in 1993. For some reason, it has not
been replaced by the lemonadeberry, toyon, and laurel sumac that used
Changes in the vegetation indicate that there are probably
wildlife shifts as well. For example, Coastal Cactus Wrens need
four-foot high cactus for their nests; until these regrow, we won't
see these wonderfully brash birds in the park. On the other hand,
some animals, like the cottontail rabbits, may be doing better than
before the fire.
Maybe the verdict is "recovered, but not the same," like the
in-town recovery. The burned out neighborhoods have returned, with
new houses and sometimes new people, but no one pretends they are the
same neighborhoods that burned in 1993.
Noted ecologist and author Dr. Allan Schoenherr will present a
slide show and explain fire ecology and fire recovery in coastal sage
scrub at the Laguna Greenbelt, Inc. Annual Meeting, 7 p.m. Thursday,
Feb. 26, at the Women's Club (St. Ann's Drive at Glenneyre Street).
The public is welcome. Refreshments will be available. Bring a
* ELISABETH M. BROWN is a biologist and the president of Laguna