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From the ashes, new blooms rise

After a devastating wildfire, time heals garden and gardener alike.

September 13, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

ALPINE, CALIF. — When Keli and Dan Cadenhead came home from dinner that Saturday in October 2003, the sky north of their hilltop house was glowing orange. They watched all night as the light intensified, filled the horizon, finally reared its flaming head above a nearby ridge and roared, at 50 mph, toward their home in the backcountry east of San Diego.

Keli fled to safety with their daughter. Dan stayed to hose the house some more, then raced to higher ground, where he watched flames roll over their 8 acres, engulfing all they owned. He told his family that the house was gone -- incinerated -- along with the acre of mostly native garden his wife had planted and nurtured for 18 years.

For Keli, the garden was neither hobby nor vocation. It was an essential ritual, a daily commitment to the land and the plants she'd selected to line the steep drive up to their Southwestern-style house and to wrap around it.

She'd even planted partway down the steep, chaparral-filled cliffs that form the mesa's sides. Beavertail, pencil and barrel cactus, blue agaves, red yucca, palo verde trees, rockrose, lavender, lion's tail. Cleveland sage, aloes, Geraldtown wax flower, fleabane, African ocotillo, lantana, Madagascar palm, sweet Alyssa. And hundreds more, the names of which she doesn't know.

"Out here, you don't have to purchase succulents and cactus," she says. "You trade with friends and neighbors. You don't need a whole plant. Just break off a leaf of something like the beavertail, plant it and it will grow. Or you plant the pup that one cactus produces, and soon you have a whole new cactus."

Keli grew up near Alpine, in the foothills of the Cuyamaca Mountains.

"I learned gardening as a child, from my mother, who knew all about succulents. It didn't seem important to me then." Later, plants became central. "I am a gardener," she says, a badge of identity.

While Dan worked his way up to president of a construction company, Keli gardened her way through raising two children. When they bought 8 acres in 1988 and built a home from scratch, she knew perfection would be achieved only after she'd planted and her garden was grown.

"The garden is what made our house beautiful," she says. "I didn't exactly have a personal relationship with the plants, but working with them, having my hands in the dirt, is a kind of therapy. Each plant meant something special to me. Each had a story behind it, the story of who gave it to me and when."

In that context, each plant was irreplaceable. Simply planting a new one wouldn't be the same.

Two days after the blaze, dubbed the Cedar fire, had passed through, police barricades prevented residents from going back to the still dangerous area. Dan and Keli couldn't wait. They outfitted his white Ford Expedition with a bar of flashing lights across the top so it would look like an official vehicle. The Cadenheads and some friends blew by two barricades with no trouble.

"With our lights flashing, they didn't think to stop us," Dan says.

"It was like driving on the moon. Everything around us was dead. Flat. Ashes. Telephone poles were still burning."

Trees, gardens and all the hardscape around their house has been demolished.

"Like a bomb hit it," he says. "Nothing left."

To their astonishment, the house was still standing. The fire, which eventually blackened 300,000 acres and destroyed 2,200 homes, had rolled over it. But an alarm was wailing from inside. Black smoke billowed as they opened the door, but they saw no flames. Dan found fire smoldering inside a dining room wall, which he knocked down while family and friends formed a bucket brigade from the pool. The fire was doused.

"Insurance investigators later told us we'd saved our house," Dan says. "If we'd gone back any later, we'd have lost it all."

There was nothing they could do to save the garden.


Loss of a garden to fire is traumatic. Yet long-term gardeners are an optimistic lot. They understand the regenerative powers of nature, the rewards of patience.

Horticulturist Jo O'Connell, owner of an Australian native-plant nursery in Ventura, says it's pointless to dwell on the downside of garden loss.

"Of course, one's very first thought is always, 'Oh God, how horribly sad this is,' " O'Connell says. "Then you wait weeks or months and plants start regrowing and you think, 'Oh God, how wonderful this is.' "

Not everything regenerates, she says. But plants native to California, Australia and South Africa have always endured fire and are somewhat equipped for it.

"They have ways of responding, by flowering from the trunk, or coming back from the base, called the lignotuber," she says. "The sumac, a common California native, is an example."

Others use different mechanisms for regrowth. Some have very hard seedcoats, she says.

Fire breaks down the seedcoat and triggers germination, the rains arrive and the new plants come up.

"The truth is once you go through all the agony of losing a garden to fire," O'Connell says, "you can experience something very positive."

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