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Recovery, bold and inspiring

PAST AND PRESENT

December 27, 2007

If one were to look back at Southern California's top news stories of the year and wonder how a victim of wildfire could find solace in the loss of a home, Michael Bright has an answer.

In October 2003, as fire spread across Palmer and Evey canyons north of Claremont, the flames charred not only the manzanita-covered hillsides but also the house that Michael shared with wife Mary. Their life's possessions were lost.

But as the couple worried if they could recover from the blaze, the landscape surrounding the ruins of their home provided some inspiration. Just three months after the wildfire, signs of life began poking from the blackened ground. Wildflowers unlike any they had seen began to bloom: whispering bells, yellow-throated phacelia, fire poppies and Michael's favorite, the foothill mariposa lily, among others.

With the help of experts at the nearby Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, as well as the California Native Plant Society and Palomar College, the Brights eventually researched and cataloged more than 150 species of flowers. The high heat of the fire and the nitrous oxide in the smoke, Michael says, helped to germinate many of the long-dormant native flower seeds in the year following the blaze. Soil enriched by ash made the show even more stunning in Year 2.

By 2006, stands of yellow mustard took over the lupine and bluebells, and nonnatives largely pushed out many of the native wildflowers. By this year, the manzanita had grown back, and the landscape looks more like its pre-fire days, leaving Michael's pictures as rare evidence of the fleeting flower show.

The Brights have documented the phenomenon not only in pictures but also in a book they hope to publish. The discovery of beauty in the ashes, Michael says, has become a lesson in moving past tragedy.

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