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Rebirth in a Fire-Scorched Park

Parts of Cuyamaca Rancho will reopen to the public on Saturday, with springtime growth to temper the ruin.

April 30, 2004|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

CUYAMACA, Calif. — On Saturday, a species missing from Cuyamaca Rancho State Park since last October's ruinous wildfire at last returns.

The public, banned after the Cedar fire burned all but 300 of the park's 25,000 acres, will be permitted onto some campgrounds and trails, beginning at sunrise.

What those returning will find is a vastly altered landscape on which bright green springtime regrowth strains to draw the eye from mile upon mile of charred forest, and human optimism labors against the reality that Cuyamaca Rancho will take several generations of Homo sapiens to restore itself.

No California state park ever has been so thoroughly wrecked by flames, according to park officials. Upward of a million trees died. In most places, the soil's organic layer burned away and a blanket of soft, gray-brown ash made the ground look like the surface of a distant planet. The few smatterings of remaining green almost shocked the eye.

Today, Cuyamaca Rancho is two different worlds divided by elevation. Tall annual grasses and rainbows of wildflowers with fairy-tale names -- tidytips, creamcups, baby blue-eyes, goldfields -- sway in the breeze in the park's lower-lying meadows.

Above this gaiety, however, Cuyamaca's three mountain peaks loom massive and autumnal, brown and black with burned soil and dead pine trees, some of which were hundreds of years old.

Along California Highway 79, which divides the park 40 miles east of San Diego, crews in bright orange Asplundh Tree Expert Co. trucks cut and clear dead trees so that new utility poles can be set.

The spitting roar of their chipping machines echoes through stands of lifeless trees. It seems a kind of dirge for the lost forest.

Optimistic Approach

To the park's staff, whose lives are most tightly bound up with Cuyamaca Rancho, the spring bloom has been a powerful tonic. They share a determined optimism.

Having endured a colorless winter, they find encouragement in every smear of meadow wildflowers, in each black skeleton of chaparral that has sprouted a messy skirt of green, in every dead-looking oak that has issued bright shoots from the armpits of its upward-angled branches or hung itself with new catkins, the seedy, thread-like flowers awaiting pollination to grow into acorns.

"It was so inspiring to see these trees bloom out that we thought were dead -- not only greening out, but blossoming, which is the ultimate sign of life," said park Supt. Laura Itogawa as she stood before an oak dripping catkins at the park's Green Valley Campground.

"For us, this is beautiful. 'Lookit! Life!' For the general public, it's going to be, 'Wow, lookit! The burn!' " she said. "But of all the species we have, there are none that aren't coming back. In fact, some protected plant species are coming back in far greater numbers and in greater expanses than we've seen before.

"And jays, hawks, owls, vultures -- everybody's back. So many rats, mice and gophers survived the fire underground that the predators -- like coyotes, bobcats and foxes that have come back -- are doing well. The deer were slim during the winter, but now they're fattening up on the new growth."

For Itogawa, the crucial moment came shortly after the fire when she visited the park's West Mesa area, where 70 deer and other animals burned to death.

Viewing the carnage in light of everything else that had occurred -- her own house was destroyed -- she felt herself coming undone.

"I just had to bite my lip and say, 'I'm not going to do that.' If I looked at the loss of my house personally, and what happened to the park personally, that would be too much. So I'm focusing on matters here professionally," she said.

There are corners of Cuyamaca Rancho, spots that burned lightly or not at all, where optimism seems perfectly justified.

Driving the East Mesa fire road (also to reopen Saturday), park ranger Bob Hillis pointed to a massive round oak tree about 50 feet high whose foliage extended to a girth of similar measure. Like many of the smaller trees around it, it seemed untouched by the fire.

Hillis hiked to a higher elevation and surveyed the area. He stretched an arm toward a draw filled with the bright green of new oak growth.

"You look at these trees," he said, "and it's like, 'What fire?' "

Miles away on the other side of Cuyamaca Rancho, in an area called Airplane Ridge, researcher Michael Wells last week went looking for pine seedlings.

Of 800 Coulter pines Wells had studied on Airplane Ridge for his doctoral dissertation in the 1990s, only three survived the flames. The Cedar fire all but wiped out Cuyamaca's pines, including some of the most stunning specimens at higher altitudes, where pines thrive more readily than oaks. Wells estimated that pines and other conifers made up 30% to 40% of the forest and that up to 95% of them had died.

Oak trees often can survive immolation. They contain protected buds beneath their bark and on their roots, and these sprout after their foliage has burned away.

Signs of Intensity

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