CUYAMACA, Calif. — Bob Hillis and Matt Green knew they were near their destination when a flock of crows lifted noisily from the blackened earth in the distance. Green stopped the truck on the rutted dirt road and the two park rangers made their way on foot across the pillowy ash blanketing the West Mesa area of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.
As they approached a dry stream bed, they found what they were looking for.
Spread over about 20 acres, the carcasses of 70 deer lay in anguished poses. They had been picked mostly clean, save for patches of hide that had been burned to suede. The bright red of violated innards peeked through exposed ribs. Threads of pink flesh littered the surrounding ash, which was hieroglyphed with the footprints of crows.
On Oct. 28 when the great Cedar wildfire struck the park, the deer, along with five bobcats, a gray fox and a wild turkey, were surrounded by flames on West Mesa and perished when the blaze roared in on them.
Hillis surveyed the carcasses, the black and gray of empty ground that stretched as far as the eye could see, the limbless trunks of tall, roasted trees glowing dully like pewter in the bright sunlight, many chewed to sharp points by the flames. "This is insane," he said. "This is totally beyond."
Cuyamaca Rancho park is closed. The Cedar fire burned it almost completely, sparing only about 300 of its 24,681 acres of mature forest and mountain meadow. Officials say no state park in California has ever been so thoroughly ravaged by fire.
The park, 40 miles east of San Diego, logs about 600,000 campers, hikers and horseback riders a year. But visitors won't be allowed back in until June, at the earliest. No one died as the fire rampaged through the park, but falling timber, obliterated trails and hidden sinkholes left by large trees that burned to the roots make Cuyamaca a dangerous place.
Hillis, Green and a battalion of other park officials and scientists have been prowling the park, trying to comprehend the extent and meaning of the destruction so they can plot a strategy for helping the place heal naturally and for preventing future calamities.
Wherever they look, they are reminded of both the hardiness and fragility of the place -- the uncertain future of its once majestic forest, its endangered ancient Indian sites, its fugitive wildlife. A boggling array of forces will figure in its recovery over many years to come.
Nature commenced its work immediately, by both subtraction and addition; while crows scavenge, meadow grasses push up an inch or two of green beneath tips that were burned black.
Humans have been no less busy. Each day, half a hundred people are at work felling dangerous trees and trucking them away. Recently along California Highway 79, which bisects Cuyamaca Rancho, helicopters dangling new utility poles beat high overhead as workers set poles in the ground and tightened power and telephone lines sagging on the branches of burned trees.
No matter how fervent the restoration efforts, however, today's small children will be elderly before Cuyamaca Rancho looks anything like what it was the day before the fire struck, if it ever does.
Feast for a Monster
Between 500,000 and a million of the park's mature trees died in the fire, according to a rough estimate by James Dice, state parks senior resource ecologist, who is coordinating the assessment. Over the past century, the practice of suppressing naturally occurring fires on park land prepared a feast for a famished monster.
One indication, whose wider portent is not yet clear, was the fate of 800 Coulter pines on six sites that researcher Mike Wells studied for his doctoral dissertation in the 1990s. Wells, now a state parks official, said that only three trees survived, and two of those were damaged.
"On five of the sites, no trees survived at all," he said. "It's hard to compare this fire to any previous fires, simply because the scope was so large and the intensity so great."
No tree species was completely wiped out, although for a time ecologists feared for the park's sugar pines. Dice said researchers since had identified a handful of large sugar pines on Cuyamaca Peak, some more than 500 years old. A larger stand on Middle Peak, however, was reduced to two live saplings.
Similarly, the worst was feared for the park's 1,000 rare Cuyamaca cypresses, but after closer inspection, Dice estimated that maybe one in five survived.
Still, "it's a disaster," said Richard Minnich, a UC Riverside geography professor and authority on fire ecology, who is helping with the assessment. "They have a bad situation where basically they've lost their forest. This is a classic example of what results from suppression."