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In ashes, sprouts of hope

CUYAMACA, Calif. -- Bob Hillis and Matt Green knew they were near their destination when a flock of crows lifted noisily from the blackened earth in the distance. Green stopped the truck on the rutted dirt road and the two park rangers made their way on foot across the pillowy ash blanketing the West Mesa area of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park.

As they approached a dry stream bed, they found what they were looking for.

Spread over about 20 acres, the carcasses of 70 deer lay in anguished poses. They had been picked mostly clean, save for patches of hide that had been burned to suede. The bright red of violated innards peeked through exposed ribs. Threads of pink flesh littered the surrounding ash, which was hieroglyphed with the footprints of crows.

On Oct. 28 when the great Cedar wildfire struck the park, the deer, along with five bobcats, a gray fox and a wild turkey, were surrounded by flames on West Mesa and perished when the blaze roared in on them.

Hillis surveyed the carcasses, the black and gray of empty ground that stretched as far as the eye could see, the limbless trunks of tall, roasted trees glowing dully like pewter in the bright sunlight, many chewed to sharp points by the flames. "This is insane," he said. "This is totally beyond."

Cuyamaca Rancho park is closed. The Cedar fire burned it almost completely, sparing only about 300 of its 24,681 acres of mature forest and mountain meadow. Officials say no state park in California has ever been so thoroughly ravaged by fire.

The park, 40 miles east of San Diego, logs about 600,000 campers, hikers and horseback riders a year. But visitors won't be allowed back in until June, at the earliest. No one died as the fire rampaged through the park, but falling timber, obliterated trails and hidden sinkholes left by large trees that burned to the roots make Cuyamaca a dangerous place.

Hillis, Green and a battalion of other park officials and scientists have been prowling the park, trying to comprehend the extent and meaning of the destruction so they can plot a strategy for helping the place heal naturally and for preventing future calamities.

Wherever they look, they are reminded of both the hardiness and fragility of the place -- the uncertain future of its once majestic forest, its endangered ancient Indian sites, its fugitive wildlife. A boggling array of forces will figure in its recovery over many years to come.

Nature commenced its work immediately, by both subtraction and addition; while crows scavenge, meadow grasses push up an inch or two of green beneath tips that were burned black.

Humans have been no less busy. Each day, half a hundred people are at work felling dangerous trees and trucking them away. Recently along California Highway 79, which bisects Cuyamaca Rancho, helicopters dangling new utility poles beat high overhead as workers set poles in the ground and tightened power and telephone lines sagging on the branches of burned trees.

No matter how fervent the restoration efforts, however, today's small children will be elderly before Cuyamaca Rancho looks anything like what it was the day before the fire struck, if it ever does.

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Feast for a Monster

Between 500,000 and a million of the park's mature trees died in the fire, according to a rough estimate by James Dice, state parks senior resource ecologist, who is coordinating the assessment. Over the past century, the practice of suppressing naturally occurring fires on park land prepared a feast for a famished monster.

One indication, whose wider portent is not yet clear, was the fate of 800 Coulter pines on six sites that researcher Mike Wells studied for his doctoral dissertation in the 1990s. Wells, now a state parks official, said that only three trees survived, and two of those were damaged.

"On five of the sites, no trees survived at all," he said. "It's hard to compare this fire to any previous fires, simply because the scope was so large and the intensity so great."

No tree species was completely wiped out, although for a time ecologists feared for the park's sugar pines. Dice said researchers since had identified a handful of large sugar pines on Cuyamaca Peak, some more than 500 years old. A larger stand on Middle Peak, however, was reduced to two live saplings.

Similarly, the worst was feared for the park's 1,000 rare Cuyamaca cypresses, but after closer inspection, Dice estimated that maybe one in five survived.

Still, "it's a disaster," said Richard Minnich, a UC Riverside geography professor and authority on fire ecology, who is helping with the assessment. "They have a bad situation where basically they've lost their forest. This is a classic example of what results from suppression."

Where natural fires are allowed to run their course two or three times a century, Minnich said, they tend to burn brush and young trees but do not "crown out," that is, burn mature trees to their full height. With each fire that destroys the lower-lying competition, mature trees are rendered more immune. But where the "understory" is allowed to grow thick and high, catastrophic fires can immolate even centuries-old trees, as happened in Cuyamaca Rancho.

Mark Jorgensen, superintendent of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, who until recently oversaw fire management at Cuyamaca Rancho, said park employees had conducted an intentional burn of about 800 acres in the park's East Mesa area last June, and the benefits became apparent during the Cedar fire.

As he and his crew battled in vain to save the park's 1923-vintage stone headquarters, "We saw the full fury of that fire," Jorgensen said. "It went by us like a freight train toward East Mesa. But when it got to that area, it stopped in its tracks."

The thoroughness with which the park burned provides an object lesson in the role of fire in the Southern California wilderness. Officials believe park visitors are in for a sobering tutorial.

"The positive side of Cuyamaca is it's not flammable anymore, and it's going to be pretty much nonflammable for quite a while," said Minnich. "So, let 'em see it. They're going to be appalled, but they need to see what's going to be the future of the Southern California forest if you continue suppression."

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Historic Sites Revealed

The blackened branches of burned chaparral looked like starvelings' arms reaching toward the sky as archeologist Sue Wade picked her way around them. She stopped at a large, low rock formation in the park's backcountry.

An abundance of potsherds on the ground and three bowl-shaped depressions worn into the granite -- mortars for grinding acorns -- made it clear that this was the site of the long-lost Kumeyaay Indian village of Mitaragui, referred to in historical documents, but not rediscovered until the Cedar fire stripped away the high brush that had concealed it for generations.

Wade climbed atop the rock formation and, spreading her arms to embrace the barren surroundings, conjured what once was here: "Women and kids grinding acorns, men and boys going up to West Mesa where'd they'd spotted deer, cousins coming up from Descanso for dancing. They probably had brush huts out there where it's flat, and little cook fires going."

Unlike many other Indians, the Kumeyaay resisted being drawn into the mission system by the Franciscan padres from Spain and Mexico, and the vicinity that is now the park became a kind of gathering place for them after white settlements encroached. As a result, Cuyamaca Rancho is archeologically rich. More than 250 archeological sites have been recorded there, even though 80% of the land has not been surveyed because dense brush has made it inaccessible. Until now.

For all its destructiveness, the wildfire brought benefits beyond the uncovering of historic sites. Power lines that ran through wilderness and were destroyed are now being relocated to the main road that runs through the park. The thoroughgoing destruction of hiking trails presents the possibility of rerouting them away from sensitive archeological sites.

The ash that covers the park is enriching the soil with potassium, and with the tall tree canopy gone, sunlight falls unimpeded on the ground. Beneath the soil, seeds of such plants as mountain lilac lie newly awakened from dormancy, their hard shells having been cracked open by the pulse of extremely high heat from the fire, which made them permeable to water.

Also just below the soil line, once dormant buds on the woody roots of manzanita and scrub oak have been awakened. The plants' above-ground buds produce a hormone that keeps their below-ground counterparts asleep, and when the exposed buds were burned away, the hormone disappeared and the underground buds sprouted.

The stirrings of plant life are subtle, but activity by wildlife is more apparent. Early indications are that much wildlife survived, the carnage on West Mesa notwithstanding.

Some areas of the park are eerily silent but, in places where the fire burned less heavily, the piping of bird song rides the smoke-smelling air.

Because the fire struck in the fall, when birds are not breeding, it didn't wipe out nestlings and it spared a year's crop of new birds, noted Walter Boyce, who, as director of the Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis, has led a number of studies in Cuyamaca Rancho.

Nonetheless, populations of virtually all bird species were significantly reduced, according to Paul Jorgensen, Mark Jorgensen's brother and a Cuyamaca Rancho ecologist.

Most of the dead birds, he said, "probably died at night when displaced by the fire. Except for owls, they can't see well enough to find a new, safe roost."

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."

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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."

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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.

"We'll probably see some fire-following species that we haven't seen for many years up there, plants that store seeds in the soil, like the fire poppy," said ecologist Dice. "You can go up there now and see regrowth of the yuccas already. They typically will flower in great profusion after a fire. There are chemicals in the smoke that are believed to trigger a flowering response in a number of plants, yuccas being among them. Where you might normally see a couple of yuccas, it's possible, come April or May, we may see entire fields of them blooming there."

Boyce is convinced the park "is going to be a beautiful place next spring and summer.... It will be a very different place than people had grown used to and loved, with all that forest canopy. It's much more open now. It will really green up and be a striking place."

For wildlife, this means a greater abundance of nutritious, low-lying new forage that is more tender and palatable than the tough old stuff it replaces, Boyce said.

The forage will favor certain birds -- mountain quail, wild turkey, lazuli bunting -- and attract rabbits and deer, which, in turn, will attract foxes, bobcats and mountain lions. "I would suspect that Cuyamaca would actually support more deer after this fire than it did before," he said.

If, however, the rains turn heavy and assaultive, runoff from soil made less absorbent by having been burned and mudslides down slopes shorn of vegetation could reshape natural contours and fill watercourses with silt.

The great fear that hangs over the park is erosion. It is embodied in the scorched boulders, like gigantic lumps of coal, that rest atop the bare black and gray hillsides rising from the east side of California 79. Should heavy rains subvert their footing, it appears the big rocks will roll headlong onto the highway below. The fire left no tree or stick of chaparral to hold the soil fast or get in their way.

Many of the newly discovered archeological sites, located near low-lying streams, are likely candidates for destruction by runaway erosion.

"I think, 'My God, we waited 150 years to find these and they're going to be gone in a couple of years,' and these people will be gone forever," said archeologist Wade, referring to the Indians who used the sites. "The fire has made this a very fragile environment, like a crystal glass waiting to be broken."

Snow, too, is a concern. So far it has been light, but if it falls more heavily, it inevitably will attract joy-seekers, and rangers will be hard-pressed to keep people and vehicles off the park's now-numerous open areas. Midwinter snow in the park tends to be wet and heavy, and could cause dead, standing trees to fall, blocking roads, endangering workers and probably delaying the park's reopening.

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Symbols of Hope

If the hilltop boulders symbolize the threat facing Cuyamaca Rancho after the great fire, something rangers Green and Hillis spotted shortly after visiting West Mesa gave powerful expression to nature's resilience.

Sobered to silence by the tableau of burned wildlife, the rangers drove slowly away and, jostling around a bend, came upon a chesty eight-point buck and two diffident does gamely searching for food on the barren hills.

The does cantered away, but the buck stood his ground for a time, as though protecting the females' retreat. The humans watched for a long moment.

"He's lookin' good," Green finally murmured.

"He's beautiful," Hillis agreed.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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