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Foresters, Foragers Await a Phoenix Syndrome

September 28, 1987|STEVE PADILLA | Times Staff Writer

The forest fire that raged for five days near Castaic Lake had barely been tamed when the mule deer, along with scientists from the U.S. Forest Service, came out to survey the damage last week.

Standing on a steep and blackened hillside, the doe poked its nose through deep ash as Bill Brown, a Forest Service biologist, watched. Mule deer often inspect the aftermath of a fire, he said, and their appearance was an early sign that the forest had already started the age-old process of renewal.

The doe casually walked off, but other deer will probably emerge to lick the ash or flop around in it on their sides. "They get in there and they roll around in that crud, and nobody knows why," Brown said.

What Brown and the seven other scientists from the Forest Service team do know is that they must prescribe possible remedies for damage caused by the largest brush fire in the Los Angeles basin this year. From Sept. 20 to 24, the unusually hot blaze charred 11,000 acres in an area of the 695,000-acre Angeles National Forest that had not had a major burn in 65 years.

Forest Rehabilitation

The Forest Service rehabilitation team--which includes hydrologists, biologists, soil engineers and even an archeologist--will spend the next few days assessing the damage and the possible benefits from the fire.

Overall, they agreed, the fire provided a necessary cleansing of an area that had become so overrun with thick brush that large animals were hindered from moving about freely.

Typically, fires purge a forest every 30 to 40 years in a natural cycle, officials said. In this case, the blaze cleared away 10-foot-high brush that only rabbits, mice, birds and other small animals could penetrate. As a result, deer and other large animals will be able to feast on young and tasty plant shoots as new growth sprouts on the hillsides, said Tom Ryan, a forest soils scientist.

"In the long run, then, it's actually a benefit," Brown said of the fire.

In nature, however, every plus has a minus--and vice versa.

The drizzle that finally enabled firefighters to contain the fire after five days, for example, also congealed the ash, making a whitish crust that will be difficult for rains and seeds to penetrate.

"That's nature," Ryan said. "It's very complicated. Nothing's simple out here."

Officials also fear that now that the brush is cleared, erosion could wash silt and ash down mountain streams and eventually into Castaic Lake. The debris could disturb the water quality in the lake and possibly threaten trout and other fish, said Max Copenhagen, a forest hydrologist and leader of the team.

Loss of Plant Life

Brown said scientists are also concerned about the loss of lush green plant life that grows along streams. Such vegetation, which includes oaks, willows and sycamores, make up only 1% of Angeles National Forest so any loss is significant, he said. Scientists may have to wait until next spring to determine whether the trees survived, Brown said.

But overall, Copenhagen said, the forest is hardy and the dense chaparral scorched off hillsides should revive by next spring. The problem now is preventing winter rains from eroding the hillsides.

"We're really concerned about this next winter," Copenhagen said. "It's not a long-range recovery project."

Officials said not many animals had perished in the fire, mostly because few had made their homes in the high chaparral.

The rehabilitation team will most likely recommend aerial drops of seeds--probably buckwheat and clover--and clearing stream beds of debris, Copenhagen said.

Forest Service officials said a stray bullet from a shooting range probably started the fire that broke out about 11:30 a.m. in Ruby Canyon east of Lake Hughes Road on Sept. 20. Fanned by dry winds, the fire spread quickly and, eventually, 1,200 firefighters joined the fire lines. About 400 people were evacuated from two juvenile probation camps and a nearby county alcohol rehabilitation facility.

Tower Is Gone

The flames surrounded the Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center 11 miles north of Castaic Lake, but firefighters beat away the flames, and the only structure destroyed was an unused Forest Service lookout tower.

The tower, valued at $100,000, was considered historically significant and was to have been moved to another location, Copenhagen said.

Firefighters got the upper hand on the fire last Wednesday when early-morning drizzle and high humidity slowed its march. By the weekend, only a few dozen firefighters remained to put out hot spots. It cost an estimated $1.3 million to fight the fire, Copenhagen said. Nine firefighters suffered minor injuries.

The rehabilitation team began surveying the damage by helicopter last Thursday and hopes to complete a report this week outlining measures to help the forest recover. A funding request to help pay for seeds, equipment and personnel will then be sent to Forest Service officials in Washington.

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