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Fire Survivors Dream of Flowers on Path of Destruction

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Times Staff Writer

Embers were still glowing on the hillsides above Porter Ranch when residents decided that the best way to put the devastating fire behind them would be to blanket the charred slopes with wildflowers.

“We were standing in the middle of the street looking at the hills, and the idea just came out of our need to do something,” said Mary Edwards, one of the organizers of the effort. “It hurt so much to see everything all burned.”

A fire driven by fierce Santa Ana winds roared through a 3,700-acre area above Northridge on Dec. 9, destroying 15 homes in the Porter Ranch neighborhood and damaging 25 others.

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In the following days, Edwards and several other residents began raising money to carpet the blackened hillsides with orange and pink poppies, red Indian paintbrush and other native wildflowers. So far, the group has received enough donations to thinly sow about 100 of the 3,700 scorched acres with wildflower seeds.

About 90 pounds of seeds were donated by the Stover Seed Co. and Builders Emporium, and the Los Angeles law firm of O’Melveny & Myers has given the group $500, said Robert Birch, a Porter Ranch homeowner and playwright. And two homeowners groups--the North Valley Coalition and the Granada Hillside Property Owners Assn.--have donated $100 worth of seeds, he said.

Residents need to raise at least $160,000 more to plant wildflowers over the entire burned area, Birch said. They have sent letters to Los Angeles City Council members and local businesses seeking money and are canvassing the area’s 3,000 families for funds.

Birch said he believes that some sort of beautification program is necessary because, otherwise, the regeneration of native vegetation will come slowly. City and county officials decided to allow most of the area to grow back naturally.

City workers will sow rye grass seeds on only one to two acres above residential areas to reduce chances of erosion and mudslides, leaving the rest untouched, said Patrick Kennedy, a maintenance supervisor for the Department of Recreation and Parks. The natural grass in the park will begin to return in one to three months, while chaparral growth can take up to three years, Kennedy said.

“Right now, it’s like a scar you have to heal,” said Birch, 41, gesturing toward the barren slopes during a recent stroll through the neighborhood. On weekdays, construction crews can be seen repairing homes whose blackened facades appear out of place along the area’s winding streets and dozens of cul-de-sacs.

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Russell Boxley, a consulting psychologist for the Los Angeles City Fire Department who specializes in emotional trauma, called the wildflower program “a natural response to the jeopardy the neighbors were put in because of the fire.” Residents learned that “there are limitations to mastering their own environment,” and now they have reacted “to show they do have some control over that environment” by cultivating it, Boxley said.

“It’s a very positive response as opposed to giving up and going away or being depressed,” he said. “Out of the ashes will rise more than there was before.”

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