Fire-Scorched Wastelands Give Way to Wildflowers and Grasses : Aftermath: Areas blackened by last fall's blazes are suddenly blooming with life. The rapid growth surprises many.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five months ago, more than 73,000 acres in the county were just blackened remains and ash-covered ground. But nature is moving swiftly, and now wildflowers and bright green grasses are taking over, turning the mess from last year's brush fires into thriving meadows.

At the heart of the Green Meadow fire in Thousand Oaks, the slopes of Boney Mountain look fresh-scrubbed instead of scorched, from a distance like a newly planted lawn where rake marks are still visible through young grass.

Deep in Aliso Canyon, which the 26,500-acre Santa Paula fire raced through on its way toward Ventura, burnt stumps and fallen trees still line the ridge behind Virgil Paxton's citrus orchard. But patches of green are appearing in the exposed soil around them and the trees on the edge of his lemon groves, singed by the flames, are thick with fruit.

"The first thought of everybody after a fire is that everything is destroyed," said Jaquie Stiver, a park ranger with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. "It isn't. It's just changed."

Stiver leads monthly nature walks into Rancho Sierra Vista in the Santa Monica Mountains to observe the fire recovery. Accompanied by Boy Scouts and nature lovers, she studies the regrowth of plant and animal life. She has watched as Rancho Sierra Vista has changed from October's wasteland to March's wildflower-filled meadows.

"Not all fires are bad things," Stiver said. Their primary benefit, according to the park service, is the fresh start the fire gives some long-dormant native plants.

Some species, like the chocolate lily--a flower named for its brown color--haven't been seen in the Santa Monica Mountains in nearly a decade, squeezed out by the dense chaparral. Others require the heat of a fire to pop open their seed jackets and germinate. These plants, called fire followers, thrive in burned areas.

On a walking tour in Rancho Sierra Vista last week, park service ecologist Ray Sauvajot said plants are thriving, in some cases doing better than the park service had expected after last fall's devastation.

"We're really happy to see the vegetation coming back," Sauvajot said.

He pointed to a dense patch of fire-follower Parry's phacelia, a lightly scented purple flower taking advantage of the ample space and nutrients in the soil along Big Sycamore Canyon.

"The herbaceous or non-woody plants are what really spring to life quickly," he said. "For the next two to five years, the herbaceous plants are going to have great wildflower displays. Then, as the shrubs begin to reassert themselves, you won't see as many flowers. There will be a secession to the woody plants and then the cycle will start all over again. The shrubs take over, setting the stage for another fire to go through."

The shrubs, or chaparral, are doing what Sauvajot calls stump-sprouting. Lifeless twigs of laurel sumac stick up as tall as five or six feet, while a riot of glossy green and red leaves begins to cover the ground around their base. The dead branches will hang on for years.

"See across on that ridge?" asked Sauvajot. "That little dip where there is still chaparral? Those gray sticks are the skeletons of old shrubs, so you can tell a small fire came through there a few years ago."

Because that area had burned fairly recently, it was mostly spared during the Green Meadow fire. But some of the chaparral in the Santa Monica Mountains hadn't burned in 37 years, which explains why it provided such good fuel for October's fires.

Even the hillsides that look like bare soil from a distance are dotted with the sturdier flowers.

"You need to get out of the car to see the flowers," Sauvajot said. "They're hard to see from the distance."

At least 66 types of flowers are blooming in Rancho Sierra Vista alone, including three varieties of lupine, California poppies, blue dicks, encelia and Johnny-jump-ups. More are expected to blossom in the next few weeks, with late April expected to be the height of the wildflower bloom.

Ironically, 30 acres in Newbury Park reseeded by the soil conservation service and Thousand Oaks Public Works department at a cost of $50,000 have been the slowest to sprout.

A 250-foot-wide band from Wendy Drive down to Reino Road was hydro-seeded with a mixture of four native grasses and mulch, but a copolymer requested by the city to combat erosion and protect the homes below from mudslides has prevented their growth.

Somewhat like a white glue that just sticks on the ground, the copolymer still hasn't dissolved despite several rainstorms. Until it does, the new grass cannot get through. From a distance, it looks like a blanket of light snow covering the hills of Newbury Park.

"There's a very strong feeling among the experts that we're far better off letting nature takes its course," said engineer George Ehrhardt with the Thousand Oaks Public Works department. "But one big reason we reseeded was that there were large areas up there with absolutely no seed bed."

Ehrhardt said the copolymer should break down after a few more storms and be replaced by a blanket of grasses.

The path and strength of the fires is still evident in many places. In the canyons burned by the Steckel fire in Santa Paula, some trees on upward slopes are covered with rust-colored dead leaves, but their trunks are barely scorched. At the bottom of Big Sycamore Canyon, live oaks with blackened trunks are showing dense green growth on the bigger branches. Scorched leaves point west, a reminder that Santa Ana winds blowing from the east fanned the fire.

Fire scars on the trunks will show for years, said Sauvajot. "But these trees are alive, they're coming back."

Remains of a mudflow from the heavy rains that followed the fires show at the base of the canyon--but even among the rocky rubble, poppies and lupine are growing. The fender of a Model T lies nearby, swept there from far up the hillside, according to ranger Bob Heidinger.

Animal life in the burn area, like plant life, is coming back smallest-first. Rabbits, moles and wood rats are rapidly repopulating the meadows. Birds of prey hang overhead.

After a few hard months with not much food available, the new plant growth is welcome. The tender shoots of the herbaceous plants are not only high in nutrients, but they apparently taste better to the animals.

Sauvajot said they found only a few animals dead after the fire. Most of the rodents probably burrowed under the ground--just a foot below the surface temperatures were low enough for them to survive--while deer and coyotes found refuge in stream beds.

The plant the park service feared for most was the prickly pear, a cactus that generally dies after fire. Near the Satwiwa Cultural Center, an entire hillside is covered with the collapsed succulent, grayish leaves flattened against the ground.

But here and there, a miniature red-tinged cactus appears, spiking off what looks like a dead surface.

"My suspicion is that it's because these are species that have lived in fire regions for a long time," said Sauvajot. "They've adapted."

After years of living in California, even the desert cactus has learned to come back from fire.

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