In April, county officials threw a picnic for hundreds to show off their newest park, a 3,200-acre swath of pristine hill and canyon country along the north side of Laguna Canyon Road. It was considered the core of what was to someday become the jewel of the county park system.
Today, in the wake of last month's devastating brush fires, the emerald green of Laguna Coast Wilderness Park is reduced to black and white. "It's pretty much devastated, from my perspective," said county parks director Tim Miller. "As far as an overall picture, before and after, it looks like a moonscape."
Nearby, the backcountry of Crystal Cove State Park has also been scorched. Some areas of the park remind ranger David Ruger of a New England winter scene, with bare trees silhouetted against mounds of white ash that look like snow. He estimates that 99% of the park's inland, probably the most popular mountain biking area in the county, was burned.
Although they were no match for the blazes that burned homes in Laguna Beach and elsewhere, the fires dealt a heavy blow to some of the county's best wilderness parks, inflicting scars that will take decades to heal and leaving trails open to the threat of erosion. Hikers, bikers and equestrians will have to go elsewhere, at least for weeks to come.
Crystal Cove and Laguna Coast will remain closed indefinitely, perhaps until the end of the year. Likewise for a private 6,600-acre parcel between the two parks, where docent-led tours were offered by the Nature Conservancy. The land, now owned by the Irvine Co., is earmarked for inclusion in Laguna Coast.
Some popular trails in the Cleveland National Forest hit by the 20,000-acre fire near Ortega Highway will also remain closed until further notice. Meanwhile, Caspers Wilderness Regional Park, 4,000 acres of which was burned in the same fire, is scheduled to reopen by this weekend, and Santiago Oaks Regional Park is already open after 70 of its 550 acres were scorched in the Anaheim Hills fire.
It's been a difficult year for the county's parks, after storm damage from heavy winter rains closed several early this year. The backcountry of Crystal Cove State Park was shut down for two months because of damage to trails; now, the "closed" sign is up again.
"For right now, we're closed at least until the end of this month," Ruger said.
Teams of experts are surveying the area to determine how best to protect it from heavy erosion once the rains set in. "Now that the fires have done their damage, that's the big issue," Ruger said.
Rains and resultant erosion pose a big threat to trails, which survived the fire for the most part (although some were damaged by heavy firefighting equipment). Before reopening the park, rangers will make sure trails are not endangered by branches from dead or damaged trees. But, most importantly, the experts need time to gauge the prospects for natural revegetation and decide whether some reseeding is necessary.
For brush areas hit by the Laguna fire, the recovery of the plant life is in question. Fire and regeneration are part of the natural cycle in the chaparral, but some biologists sent in to survey the damage worry that this fire burned so hot that the seed base may have been destroyed.
"It's just a matter of time to see what's going to be happening here," Ruger said. "It'll be interesting to see what starts popping up in a week or so."
The inland portion of the park can get 1,000 or more visitors on a weekend, many of them mountain-bike riders. Some wildlife experts are concerned that once the park (and other burn areas) reopen, mountain cyclists and other users will be tempted to head off-trail on the denuded hillsides, which would only hamper new plant growth and hasten erosion.
Since the park opened in April, visitors to Laguna Coast have been restricted to weekend docent-led groups of hikers, bikers and equestrians. Miller doesn't expect tours to resume until December at the earliest, and probably not until early next year.
Looking on the bright side, Miller said the blaze affords naturalist guides in the seasons ahead the chance to teach about fire's place in the natural cycle of the chaparral. But again, because of the intensity of the fire (fed by decades of fuel buildup), there is a question of whether the park's vegetation can regenerate on its own.
Biologists who have surveyed the area are divided, Miller said: "Some feel that it will recover naturally. (Others feel) that even some of the seed base may be destroyed."
Miller has more confidence that areas of Caspers Wilderness Park hit by the Ortega fire will recover fully. The park was a staging area for thousands of firefighters battling the blaze, but is quiet again and may reopen as early as today.