Crews this weekend swarmed the rugged hillsides of Deukmejian Wilderness Park to backfill trails and remove debris in preparation for a grand reopening Saturday.
Blackened canyons, charred branches, concrete barriers and other water-diverting devices — consequences of the deadly Station fire and ensuing winter storms — have largely been replaced by shades of white, yellow, green and purple.
The Station fire tore through nearly all 709 acres of the park, clearing plants and trees that help to absorb water and hold soil. Woody-stemmed plants are expected to return alongside the mustard, lupine and phacelia.
But for all of nature’s resilience, loosened rock and miles of eroded trail have delayed much of the park’s reopening until next year. Senior park naturalist Russ Hauck and more than 100 volunteers have spent the past few months readying the lower portion of the park.
Area residents and wilderness enthusiasts have spent the weekends clearing castor bean, tree tobacco and star thistle, which often lays dormant for years, pulling the nonnative plants from their roots and stashing them away so as not to spread seeds.
Rick Yarnes, of La Crescenta, returned with his family to work on the rocky hillside. They’ve been anxious to get back among nature, he said, and have become part of the core group that helped fill large trash bags with leafy castor bean and stalks of tree tobacco.
“If you run out of castor bean and star thistle, we’ll move someplace else,” said John Pearson, a landscape architect and the park’s project manager. “We have plenty of real estate to work with.”
Pearson instructed volunteers to tug hard on the plants.
“If you can’t pull it up, we’re going to have to cut or chip it,” he said.
Kevin Kunitake, a graduate of St. Francis High School in La Cañada Flintridge, grew up visiting the park before going away to study journalism at American University. It was a surreal experience scanning the front page of the New York Times and seeing what he regarded as a hometown refuge in flames.
“I thought, what is going on?” said Kunitake, driving a shovel into the roots of stubborn star thistle.
Asked whether he enjoyed the manual labor, the 19-year-old sophomore shrugged and continued chipping away at the roots.
“It’s fun,” he said. “If you want to call it that.”
Mark Ajian, a software engineer from Glendale, stood in a clearing and wondered aloud whether ash and soot from the fire had been completely blown away.
“Every so often I get a mouthful of bitter,” Ajian said.
That didn’t stop him from acting out what he described as a deep sense of dedication and respect for the terrain that overlooked his home. Like many who used the reserve’s four main hiking trails, he expressed frustration with the decision to reopen only a small portion of the park.
Park officials estimated it would take more than 1,000 hours to clear and rebuild the reserve’s main trails. Because the effort would be threatened by winter storms, they’ll begin the work when the soil stabilizes next spring.
“Let’s be honest, they’re calling it a reopening, but it’s mostly for members of the City Council to come and do a dog-and-pony show,” Ajian said. “This is a wilderness park. And unless people can enjoy the wilderness, what exactly are they reopening?”
Officials said they plan to christen the park with a brief hike up to a large, surviving live oak tree — an effort to give park-goers their first glances of natural recovery. Other scheduled events include a demonstration of how American Indians used fire to manage the land and a lecture on the land’s developer, George LeMesnager.
Acquired in 1898 by LeMesnager, the property went on to serve as a working ranch. Another discussion deals with the stone barn vineyard and the rebirth of winemaking in the Crescenta Valley.
Francoise Grand-Clement, of La Crescenta, could not wait to return.
“I was so devastated watching the Station fire,” she said. “And I’m willing to do whatever it takes to help, pitch in.”