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ENVIRONMENT

Scars, and signs of life

New growth and visitors return to the Santa Monica Mountains weeks after the Topanga fire.

October 18, 2005|Hugo MartIn | Times Staff Writer

RANGER Martin O'Toole surveys the burned-out brush along Cheeseboro Canyon Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains, where the full brunt of last month's wind-whipped fire was unleashed.

The 4 1/2 -mile route up a canyon once framed by full, leafy oaks now has an eerie moonscape feel, permeated by the aroma of burnt wood. The ground is black with ash; the leaves of the burnt oaks are a dull light green and crumble like potato chips at the touch. In spots, the fire burned so intensely that the remaining ash is white, looking like snowbanks against the jet-black ground.

It's the same at nearby Palo Comado Canyon to the west.

"It was beautiful in here," the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area ranger says as he steers his patrol truck along dusty fire roads bordered by ash-covered hills, dotted with singed oak trees and the burned remains of sage and chaparral. "The sage was soft and fragrant in spring. But it will be back again this spring."

Hiking trails in the Simi Hills and the northernmost stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains reopened Thursday after being closed for three weeks because of the Topanga fire that started Sept. 28. But the opening was short-lived. On Monday early rains rather than fire prompted authorities to close the trails again until they dry out.

Two-thirds of the 24,175 acres that burned was public parkland, including popular hiking areas in Cheeseboro and Palo Comado canyons in Agoura Hills as well as Liberty and Upper Las Virgenes canyons at the former Ahmanson Ranch.

And though everything here is a darker shade of charcoal, enthusiastic visitors to the park crowded into the entrances on the first day trails reopened, anxious to see the destruction firsthand and savor areas that were spared.

"We couldn't wait for them to open it up," says Tammy Shuman of Agoura Hills, leading her horse back from a ride along Cheeseboro Canyon Trail. The ash and dust gave her horse sneezing fits, Shuman says, but the views she saw from China Flat were worth the trip.

"You can see down into the valleys," she says. "You get to see all of the devastation."

O'Toole continues his survey of the canyon, stopping his truck under a large, leafy oak tree that escaped the flames.

"Welcome back," he calls out to a mountain biker.

"It's about time you guys opened this place up," the biker says with a grin. He pulls up behind the ranger's truck, dust kicking up from his knobby tires. "I was getting withdrawals."

*

A mosaic pattern

THOUGH users will be greeted with drifting ash and charred sage, the damage to these trails isn't permanent. The chaparral so abundant in the Santa Monica Mountains has a strong root system and an ability to recover quickly from fire.

Last winter's record rainfall added extra vegetation that fueled the fire, but the area was spared permanent damage because the Santa Ana winds that carried the flames south through the canyons subsided a few days after the blaze ignited. As the winds died down, cool coastal breezes picked up, increasing the humidity and preventing the fire from jumping the Ventura Freeway and burning toward the coast.

The result is a mosaic burn pattern throughout the parklands, with some islands of dry grass, sage and coast live oaks surrounded by an ocean of charred branches and black ash. O'Toole says the unburned islands will provide cover and habitat for wildlife, such as rabbits, deer and bobcats, until the burned area regrows.

While park officials have yet to conduct any scientific surveys to determine how many animals died in the blaze, O'Toole believes deaths were minimal, noting that firefighters found a four-point buck that perished.

Rumbling up the Cheeseboro Canyon Trail, O'Toole spots a red-tail hawk circling over a small creek lined with heavy shrubs and a bare hillside. The hawk tilts its tail and glides onto one of the top branches of a tall oak tree.

"It's like a barbecue for the hawks and the turkey vultures because their prey has nowhere to hide now," he says, looking up at the hawk.

Parks officials are optimistic about the natural recovery, but cast a wary eye toward winter, when torrential downpours could lead to heavy mudslides and severe erosion while showers like those that started Saturday can help regrowth.

Despite the damage, conservationists and park officials say opening access to the park isn't causing any further damage -- provided visitors stay on the trails and roads.

That's crucial to the recovery, says Woody Smeck, parks superintendent of the national recreation area. After a fire, parklands are vulnerable to erosion caused by foot traffic or rain because the native plants and shrubs that hold the soil in place are gone, Smeck says. Hikers and cyclists who wander off established trails can also slow the renewal by compacting soft soil and trampling on seedlings that are ready to sprout, he says.

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