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Regional Report : Signs of Life in Fire Zones : Areas blackened by last fall's blazes are suddenly blooming with wildflowers and bright green grasses. The rapid growth surprises many.

April 07, 1994|MARY F. POLS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five months ago, several thousand acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties were just blackened remains and ash-covered ground. But nature is moving swiftly, and now wildflowers and bright green grasses are taking over, turning the mess from the November wildfires into thriving meadows.

Deep in Aliso Canyon, which the 26,500-acre Santa Paula fire raced through on its way toward Ventura, burnt stumps and fallen trees still line the ridge behind Virgil Paxton's citrus orchard. But patches of green are appearing in the exposed soil around them and the trees on the edge of his lemon groves, singed by the flames, are thick with fruit.

Throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, there is new life.

"The first thought of everybody after a fire is that everything is destroyed," said Jaquie Stiver, a park ranger with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. "It isn't. It's just changed."

Stiver leads monthly nature walks into Rancho Sierra Vista in the Santa Monica Mountains to observe the fire recovery. Accompanied by Boy Scouts and nature lovers, she studies the regrowth of plant and animal life. She has watched as Rancho Sierra Vista has changed from October's wasteland to spring's wildflower-filled meadows.

"Not all fires are bad things," Stiver said. Their primary benefit, according to the park service, is the fresh start the fire gives some long-dormant native plants.

Some species, like the chocolate lily--a flower named for its brown color--haven't been seen in the Santa Monica Mountains in nearly a decade, squeezed out by the dense chaparral. Others require the heat of a fire to pop open their seed jackets and germinate. These plants, called fire followers, thrive in burned areas.

On a walking tour in Rancho Sierra Vista last week, park service ecologist Ray Sauvajot said plants are thriving, in some cases doing better than the park service had expected after last fall's devastation.

"We're really happy to see the vegetation coming back," Sauvajot said.

He pointed to a dense patch of fire-follower Parry's phacelia, a lightly scented purple flower taking advantage of the ample space and nutrients in the soil along Big Sycamore Canyon.

"The herbaceous or non-woody plants are what really spring to life quickly," he said. "For the next two to five years, the herbaceous plants are going to have great wildflower displays. Then, as the shrubs begin to reassert themselves, you won't see as many flowers. There will be a secession to the woody plants and then the cycle will start all over again. The shrubs take over, setting the stage for another fire to go through."

The shrubs, or chaparral, are doing what Sauvajot calls stump-sprouting. Lifeless twigs of laurel sumac stick up as tall as five or six feet, while a riot of glossy green and red leaves begins to cover the ground around their base. The dead branches will hang on for years.

"See across on that ridge?" asked Sauvajot. "That little dip where there is still chaparral? Those gray sticks are the skeletons of old shrubs, so you can tell a small fire came through there a few years ago."

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Because that area had burned fairly recently, it was mostly spared during the Green Meadow fire. But some of the chaparral in the Santa Monica Mountains hadn't burned in 37 years, which explains why it provided such good fuel for October's fires.

Even the hillsides that look like bare soil from a distance are dotted with the sturdier flowers.

"You need to get out of the car to see the flowers," Sauvajot said. "They're hard to see from the distance."

At least 66 types of flowers are blooming in Rancho Sierra Vista alone, including three varieties of lupine, California poppies, encelia and Johnny-jump-ups. More are expected to blossom in the next few weeks, with late April expected to be the height of the wildflower bloom.

Thirty acres in Newbury Park reseeded by the soil conservation service and Thousand Oaks Public Works department at a cost of $50,000 have been the slowest to sprout.

A 250-foot-wide band from Wendy Drive down to Reino Road was hydro-seeded with a mixture of four native grasses and mulch, but a co-polymer requested by the city to combat erosion and protect the homes below from mudslides has prevented their growth.

Somewhat like a white glue that just sticks on the ground, the co-polymer still hasn't dissolved despite several rainstorms. Until it does, the new grass cannot get through. From a distance, it looks like a blanket of light snow covering the hills of Newbury Park.

"There's a very strong feeling among the experts that we're far better off letting nature takes its course," said engineer George Ehrhardt with the Thousand Oaks Public Works department. "But one big reason we reseeded was that there were large areas up there with absolutely no seed bed."

Ehrhardt said the co-polymer should break down after a few more storms and be replaced by a blanket of grasses.

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