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UP FROM THE ASHES : Five Months After Decker Canyon Fire, Residents Struggle to Rebuild, While Nature Slowly Heals Itself

March 09, 1986|JUDY PASTERNAK | Times Staff Writer

The day after the flames swept through Decker Canyon, Bill Farrand decided to visit 160 acres of National Park Service property there. He arrived expecting to mourn.

Indeed, the land smoked still. Feathery, filmy vapors rose from bare gray soil, from the scorched 10-foot limbs of once-leafy brush, from the singed trunks of what had been healthy oaks before the fire raced over a knoll from Mulholland Highway in the middle of the morning of Oct. 14.

The piles of ash were powdery white, but they left dark smears on Farrand's ranger uniform. The air smelled like the inside of a chimney.

Soon enough, though, Farrand spied signs of life. In the bed of a withered creek, a spring still bubbled, undisturbed by the previous day's 1,000-degree heat. By the water's edge, a few cat-tail reeds stood intact, their green stems a bright contrast to the blackened firescape.

As he moved closer to the reeds, Farrand started hearing loud chirps and trills. The canyon birds had converged there. They had found the only source of moisture for miles.

"I counted about 10 species all together there," Farrand, a park service planner, said later. "Black-headed grosbeaks, quail, all sorts of warblers and sparrows."

Just as the survivors were adapting, so was the rest of the canyon. In fact, inches below the ground's surface, unseen, the renewal was already under way.

The Decker fire, in rugged, sparsely populated western Malibu, was the largest of five blazes that raged through the Santa Monica Mountains in 1985. The 100-foot flames roaring out of control through the brush made newspaper headlines and filled television screens across the United States.

Hundreds of firefighters spent three days struggling to contain the conflagration. By the time they succeeded, 6,526 acres in and around Decker Canyon had been consumed.

For the canyon's plants and wildlife, however, the fire was a start, not a finish. In a cycle as old as Southern California's coastal ranges, the burnt brush fertilized the soil and made room for the growth of new plants, which are food for the deer, which in turn are fodder for coyotes and bobcats.

Not quite five months after the fire, the charred hillsides are crisscrossed by faint lines of green: young plants, grasses, vines and sprouting shrubs.

So far, the patchy network has held the slopes in place despite the winter rains. No flash floods have washed down the canyon; no significant slides have washed out its winding roads.

The transformation is not nearly as dramatic as the flames that set it off. And so few outsiders pay attention.

But a handful of rangers, foresters and naturalists have been watching closely. They snap weekly sets of photographs, fly overhead in helicopters, ride horseback through the hills.

What they have witnessed is a quiet healing that is all the more wondrous when measured against the slow pace of the canyon's residents, who must repair the creations of man.

There are only 50 dwellings in Decker Canyon, clustered along three paved and one dirt road, amid preserves owned by the park service, the city of Los Angeles and the state.

There has been a boom of sorts; about a dozen of the houses were built in the past year. But even the new ones, for the most part, have little in common with the Malibu of popular perception, the Malibu of million-dollar mansions with panoramic ocean views.

That Malibu exists to the south, on the beach side of Pacific Coast Highway, across from the canyon's mouth. It exists further east, where the distance to Santa Monica is shorter than the distance to Oxnard.

But in Decker Canyon, the residents are quick to declare that they are different. "We're not all rich," said Darlene Livingston. "People ought to know that."

October's fire was not the canyon's first. Since the Fire Department started keeping records in 1919, blazes have ripped through at least 100 acres in Decker Canyon four times before: in 1935, 1956, 1958 and 1978.

This time, most of the homes were spared by the flames. But four were not. Other casualties included cars, trucks, water pumps, garages, guest quarters and sheds. Even a fire engine, parked outside Station 72 near the top of the canyon, was ruined.

"I'm starting from scratch," said Darlene's husband Bill, a house painter who has lived in the canyon for 10 years. He did not carry insurance and he estimates the family's fire loss at $30,000.

His plans for the future were dealt a huge blow by October's fire.

Bill Farrand's were not.

When the blaze broke out, Farrand had been working for a year on a proposal to build a campground for the severely disabled on 10 acres in a corner of the Park Service land. He hoped that within a year or two, trails wide enough for wheelchairs would wend through the remaining 150 acres--a varied terrain of brushy slopes, stands of oak and sycamore, craggy boulders and the meandering headwaters of Trancas Creek.

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