Grassland birds, such as Western meadowlarks and American pipits, are faring better than forest dwellers, such as woodpeckers, nuthatches and jays, because the burned meadows are reconstituting themselves far more quickly.
The loss of forest habitat will reduce the diversity of winged life in the park for many years to come. When the purple martins, ruby-crowned kinglets and other migrators return next spring, there will be few places for them to nest in Cuyamaca.
Ecologists are especially concerned about the park's three to five nesting pairs of spotted owls, which favor shady, old-growth forest trees. None of the owls has been seen since the fire.
Deer and other large animals seem to have fared better.
Boyce estimated between 1,000 and 2,000 mule deer roamed the park before the fire. Of 11 deer that UC Davis researchers had fitted with radio collars, only one perished. Four of five radio-collared mountain lions that frequent park territory are still alive.
"On the west side of Cuyamaca Peak," Boyce said, "we found a female mountain lion and one fairly good-sized cub that had killed a deer, dragged it across probably 300 meters of burned area to some remaining chaparral, and consumed it over the course of two days.
"We cannot assume that what happened on West Mesa happened everywhere in the park."
The Toll on Trees
The fire did not permanently wipe out Cuyamaca's forest, but awaiting its restoration may require patience bordering on the geological, and the pre-fire mix of trees may never reappear.
Some varieties of oaks are notably successful at resprouting from unburned sections of their crowns, and the canopies of some trees that were not immolated still show tinges of green amid their more common baked khaki.
Oaks that were burned too hard to regenerate from their crowns tend to sprout again, too, but from ground level, which means they return shaped more like shrubs than trees. About the only old oaks certain to have been killed, said Paul Jorgensen, who was initially charged with tagging dangerous dead trees for removal, are those that burned internally after having been invaded by fire through their natural holes and crevices.
Unlike oaks, all pines die if defoliated by fire. Of the park's four most numerous species of pines, ponderosa and Jeffrey pines are the most resilient in fires, but their seeds are in open cones and highly vulnerable to conflagrations as intense as the Cedar blaze. These trees may lose the contest to reproduce themselves.
Coulter pines, like the ones Mike Wells studied, are the most likely to die in a blaze, but are also the most likely to establish seedlings afterward, thanks to their closed cones, which opened only in the aftermath of the fire and dropped seeds on the nutritious ash-covered soil newly bared to sunlight. "These are really good conditions for little pine trees to get established," Wells said.
Coulter pines, however, require about 20 years to reach reproductive age -- yet another example of how each species must balance pluses and minuses after a fire.
Reproduction prospects for the Cuyamaca cypresses, another variety of closed-cone trees, also are good, given the number of cones that opened after the fire. But new cypresses prosper best at fire intervals of as long as 50 years and, as with the Coulter pines, fires before then could threaten the existence of the species. "You could wipe it out in short order with a few fires," Dice said.
Minnich is bluntly pessimistic about the park's mature mixed forest of oaks and conifers. "Basically, you're dealing with an extirpated ecosystem. We're not going to have any conifers for a long time -- no mature forest for at least a century."
The worst casualty of the fire likely was the forest's diversity. Minnich flatly predicted that three mountain peaks, the most dramatic features of the park, over the next century would become "solid masses of black oak with some Coulters thrown in."
Wildlife ultimately prospers most in an environment that includes both old and young chaparral, both thick and thin canopy. The Cedar fire, however, "basically reset the clock," said Boyce, "so the whole park is starting over."
A Different Place
Park officials await winter rains with trepidation and hope. If the rains continue to be moderate and spaced apart, as they have been so far, injured trees and chaparral will get a head start in resprouting and spring's wildflower bloom could be the most spectacular in living memory.