Rebirth from Station fire's ashes

A year and a half after the Station fire laid waste to Angeles National Forest lands above La Cañada Flintridge, signs of life, including fields of wildflowers bursting with color, have risen from the once-charred ground.

With the blessing of the U.S. Forest Service, mountain biker and photographer Mike Caley has enjoyed a rare view of the natural recovery of otherwise closed parts of the forest.

Caley will share hundreds of photographs documenting that recovery process during a presentation Wednesday at the La Cañada Flintridge Public Library. He’ll also be pitching audience members on ways to lend nature a helping hand by planting trees in some of the forest’s formerly wooded areas.

“There’s been unbelievable, off-the-chart stuff happening up there,” said Caley, an architect who had been biking in the forest for nearly 20 years before the August 2009 wildfire, the largest ever in Los Angeles County.

“By April, plants were already coming back. There are pictures of charred black hillsides with burnt sticks of underbrush and then spots of yellow poppies. Then the whole hillside is yellow. Then another layer of plants replace them, and then a whole group of lupines or wild Canterbury bells replace them. It was just a cycle of color,” he continued.

The regeneration that Caley has documented along local hillsides and gorges is part of post-fire life-cycle in which smaller plants take hold and gradually give way to larger plants and, eventually, trees.

Fostering the growth of trees at certain spots in the forest is the focus of Forest Aid: Angeles, a volunteer effort that begins March 5 with the planting of pine-tree seedlings in the Chilao campground and Charleton Flats areas, located off the Angeles Crest Highway several miles northeast of town.

Over the past year, the nonprofit environmental group Tree People has been training volunteers how to plant and care for coulter and ponderosa pine seedlings. These seedlings were cultured by the U.S. Forest Service from surviving Angeles Forest trees in an effort to closely match native biology that existed in the area before the Station fire.

The group will continue its efforts for three years in the hope of stewarding a 75-acre area, said Linda Eremita, a Tree People arborist and forestry-education manager.

This season’s plantings will continue Wednesdays through Sundays until early May. Those who wish to volunteer can call (818) 623-4843 or visit forestaid.net.

Caley, meanwhile, is not the only nature enthusiast working to document the Angeles National Forest’s comeback.

Corina Roberts, who lives along the Mt. Wilson corridor approximately 14 miles into the forest, has also been photographing post-fire succession of plant species. She aims to archive these photos online, produce educational films and create a permanent exhibit at a U.S. Forest visitors’ center.

Roberts, founder of the Native American and environmental nonprofit group Redbirds Vision, said tree seedlings have already started to take hold in some parts of the forest.

“It may not look the same in our lifetimes, but the forest is going to be OK,” said Roberts, who believes that fire prevention efforts have been so extreme that they have disrupted natural fire cycles, making conflagrations more widespread and devastating when they do happen.

“The human reality of this fire was horrific, but in natural terms it was a cleanup — a time to get started again,” she continued.

Seeing natural regeneration already speeding ahead, Roberts was at first reluctant to support forest-replanting efforts, but she eventually came around to the idea of interceding near campgrounds and other fragile, high-traffic areas.

Caley said the story of the Angeles National Forest’s rebirth — on its own and with the limited intervention of human hands — is as dramatic as it is important, and that he will continue to focus his camera on the lands directly above La Cañada Flintridge for years to come.

“I’m definitely going to keep going. I’m hooked,” he said.

Caley’s presentation of “Out of the Station Fire Ashes” begins at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2, at the La Cañada Flintridge Public Library, 4545 N. Oakwood Ave. For more information, call (818) 790-3330.

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