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Environment : Notes about your surroundings.

AFTERMATH: Fire, to many people, means destruction. But in the natural world, fire can also mean life--especially in Orange County, where fire is such an integral part of the natural cycle.

The fire that blackened 2,384 acres along Ortega Highway near San Juan Capistrano left an apparent wasteland in much of its wake. But by next spring, many traces of the fire will already be erased, and in two or three years, it will be hard to tell there was a fire at all. And this recovery takes place without any help from man.

“Most people think the Forest Service or somebody comes by and reseeds after a fire like that,” said Linda McFarland, a park ranger at Santiago Oaks Regional Park in Orange, site of a 1982 brush fire. “It recovers quite nicely itself without reseeding.”

The area burned a week ago encompasses several plant communities, mainly coastal sage scrub, grassland and some chaparral, according to Dave Bontrager, a wildlife biologist and partner in Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano.

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In the coastal sage scrub and chaparral, many shrubby plants recover from fire in a process called crown-sprouting. The plant is burned to the ground, but much of the plant’s energy is stored beneath the soil and it can begin to sprout within weeks.

Ungerminated seeds in the soil are given a shot at life by fire. Some seeds, including those of many species of wildflower, actually require fire to germinate. The season after the 1982 Santiago Oaks fire, McFarland said, “There was just a profusion of wildflowers.”

In the coastal sage scrub, another process is also at work. Many adult plants produce a volatile chemical that is carried into the soil by rain and dew. It is believed this chemical actually inhibits the germination of new seeds--until a fire comes along and breaks the chemical down, allowing those ungerminated seeds a chance to sprout.


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