For most of July 2008, the Gap Fire burned the mountains above Goleta, west of Santa Barbara; then that November the Tea Fire burned east of the city, and finally in May 2009 the Jesusita fire burned the mountains behind it.

Wildfire has always been part of the chaparral eco-system. Richard Dana’s Two Years before the Mast mentions a wildfire that had swept through Santa Barbara twelve years before he arrived (that fire would have been about 1823), and the Chumash used to set controlled burns to encourage the growth of plants (such as Chia) that were important to them. So plants have evolved to respond to fire.

The perennials often have extensive roots from which a plant can re-sprout after the trunk has burned to ash, while the annuals have seeds which can pass through fires (and, indeed, often will not germinate until after a fire).

The chaparral is mostly shrubs and, with the exception of vines, few annuals have a chance to break through to the sun until a fire has cleared space by burning off the taller trees. So a fire provides a brief chance for smaller plants to thrive for a few years before the shrubs take over again. They germinate, grow, flower, and drop seeds which wait for the next fire in another hundred years or so.

The Jesusita fire burned up the chaparral leaving behind nothing but a few blackened stumps and ash.

These pictures were taken about a month after the fire. In both the routes of the trails show up as lighter lines against the soil (I guess less ash fell on the somewhat clearer trails?). There are still some trees with leaves in the damper gullies.

Surprisingly (to me anyway), the trees with leaves were not in good shape either. The leaves had not burned, true, but they were none-the-less cooked and quite dead.

The trails were closed to normal travel after the fire. The fire had also caused the local shale to explode into gravel, which had fallen across the routes and rendered them impassable; the trails could not reopen until this was cleared off and the trails stabilized. A month after the fire, when working to clear the trails I already noticed a few signs of life:

About the first plant I saw was a fern. I don’t recall ferns living on that trail in the past, and I don’t think of them growing on a dry hillside, but there they were and there they still are. Then when I looked closely at the base of the blackened trunks I often saw small patches of green. The shrubs were regrowing from their roots.

In August I snuck back to the trail I had helped clear (which was still officially closed)

There was a bit more green at the base of the trunks, and one wildflower, a canyon sunflower, blooming in the desolation.

The trails reopened in November. And they didn’t look very different from what I had seen in June. The basal growth was a bit bigger, and there were a few more free standing plants — wild cucumber vine, purple nightshade some humming bird sage.

There were signs of regeneration except for the oaks. None of them had any leaves (except the dead, cooked ones), none had any basal shoots.

Then came the winter rains, and when I next ventured into the burned area, everything was different.

The burns were covered with annual flowers. There was a mass lupine bloom on the lower reaches of Jesusita trail, while above that the hillsides were covered with Phacelias. The shrubs were not blooming, but the annuals were growing with such profusion that you barely noticed. There were wildflowers blooming which I had never seen before — fire poppies, bladder pod, red maids — fire followers that don’t germinate until after a fire, and there were other plants blooming in far greater profusion than usual, the lupines which took over the hillside, Phacelia grandiflora which were more common than I’d ever seen before. Star lilies all over the burns…

The false bindweeds covered the hillsides (so I stopped worrying about erosion and started worrying that nothing would grow through the bindweed mat.

And eventually the oaks put forth new leaves. Unlike everything else their leaves were on the old trunks and some of the main branches. I guess there was a spark of life buried in the thicker branches which wanted only the coming of spring to reawaken it. Small patches of leaves appeared, not on the outer twigs, but the central trunks.

In July there was another mass bloom, all through the front country, and the late blooming mariposa lilies flowered in great profusion.

In spring of 2011 the community has changed again. There are fewer fire followers. I only saw fire poppies on one trail, and very few star-lilies anywhere. There are also fewer Phacelia grandiflora, other Phacelia have taken their places. There were no meadows covered with lupine. Chaparral Lotus has made inroads into the bindweed thickets. And the shrubs which were blackened stumps in 2009, and a few sprigs at the base of those trunks in 2010, have so far recovered themselves that they are now blooming.

By 2014, five years on, from a distance the land looks the same as it ever did. Close up the shrubs are thriving, and if not quite as tall as before, well they are close to it. The oaks are back to normal.

Change to the West Fork of Cold Spring after the Jesusita Fire

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