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A reborn landscape emerges in park

Cuyamaca Rancho, ravaged by fire in 2003, offers insight on how wild lands recover. The future: more oaks and fewer pines.

December 10, 2006|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

CUYAMACA, CALIF. — The catastrophic Cedar fire that burned Cuyamaca Rancho State Park to a char three years ago is receding into history.

The caravans of orange tree-service trucks that clogged California Route 79 in November 2003 as overworked crews felled hundreds of dangerous burned trees on both sides of the road in the smoldering park are long gone. The ceaseless dirge of chain saws has faded to silence.

California 79 has been repaved. It's now called Steven Rucker Memorial Highway, after the Marin County firefighter who died nearby in the conflagration.

Since the Cedar fire, nearly 29,000 other fires, including the recent and deadly Esperanza blaze in Riverside County, have burned about 1.2 million acres of wild land in California, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the U.S. Forest Service.

None, however, has been as destructive as the Cedar fire, which killed 15 people, destroyed 2,200 houses and burned more than 300,000 acres. It was particularly thorough in its embrace of Cuyamaca Rancho, sparing only 300 of the park's 26,000 acres and all but obliterating its majestic mountain forest of luxuriant oaks and towering pines, some half a millennium old.

Compared to the Cedar fire, the dramas now unfolding as nature reconstitutes itself are slow and quiet but will determine what exists in the park's meadows and on its mountains in the distant future. They give insight into what is occurring in all of California's burned wild lands, where devastated forests will require a human lifetime to return to anything like pre-fire conditions -- if they ever do.

Subtle changes

Although the park's most striking visual features -- acre upon acre of dead, black pines, many limbless and chiseled to points by the flames -- remain, less attention-commanding changes have been occurring.

On Cuyamaca Peak, the park's highest point, the ground was burned bare and blanketed in ash immediately after the fire. By spring 2005, it wore a green carpet of ground-hugging bracken fern. Now, mountain lilac, a shrub uniquely adapted to coming back from a fire, rises like a bristling green tide 2 and 3 feet deep around the spires of dead trees.

Park officials' biggest concern -- their deepest longing -- is for the kingly pines that were Cuyamaca Rancho's hallmark. In the park's lower reaches, pines were killed at rates approaching 100%. Unlike fire-resistant oaks, which resprout from limbs and roots, pines can regenerate only from seeds -- a far dicier strategy.

Michael Wells, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the park's pines, recently went up the peak in search of a patch of inch-high baby pines he had discovered growing in ash the first spring after the fire. A year later, after the heavy rains of winter 2005, he was delighted to find the seedlings had grown well in the newly abundant sunlight at the feet of charred remains of their parents.

Wells, now superintendent of the state's Colorado Desert Park District, which includes Cuyamaca Rancho, found what he was looking for. The small pines had survived. One Coulter pine seedling had grown to thigh height. A couple of dozen others were 2 feet tall.

"This is probably his third year," Wells said of the largest seedling. "This should be a survivor."

Even more encouraging was the sight of smaller pines, about 6 inches tall. "These are seedlings that probably came up a year after the first ones," he said.

"These will be 15 feet tall in about nine years, which is about when Coulters begin producing seed-bearing cones of their own. This area will be a pine forest again. In 40 years it will be similar to what was here before. What I'm hoping is we'll be finding little pockets like this spread all over the park."

Wells' hopes were dashed, however, on the park's lower-lying West Mesa, a graveyard of standing, dead pines, their peeling black bark displaying, in a Dalmatian pattern, the white wood beneath.

The dead forest was now afloat on a sea of mountain lilac and nonnative grasses such as mustard and wild oats. Where Wells had done his dissertation study of Coulter pines, the open ground had been accessible to hikers after the rainy winter of 2005. Now it was impassable, thanks to thick mountain lilac and early arriving mountain mahogany. No pine seedlings had a chance here.

Farther down the slope, numerous oaks that in 2005 had sprouted isolated balls of green shoots on their upward-turned limbs now seemed to be wearing verdant overcoats on their blackened frames, the green balls having grown together over the last 18 months.

"This will be Ceanothus [mountain lilac] for 40 years, and farther to the south an oak savanna," Wells said.

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