Destruction and renewal: a photographic journey

The scorched landscape, burned bare of any signs of life, stretched over 250 square miles. Nothing but charred land dotted with remnants of burnt trees could be seen. The devastated terrain was the result of the Station fire, Los Angeles County's largest-ever wild conflagration, which raged through the Angeles National Forest in August of 2009. Two firefighters were killed, scores of homes were destroyed, and all plant and animal life seemingly was eradicated by the fire's fury.

But as La Cañada Flintridge resident and avid bicyclist Michael Caley discovered, nature is resilient.

Caley, a local architect, nature lover and photographer, has been biking throughout the mountains of the Angeles National Forest for years. His favorite ride is up Earl Canyon Road and west to Mt. Lukens, along a ridge to the Los Angeles City's highest point at 5,074 feet. The spring after the Station fire, Caley was granted special permission to enter the burned forest as a U.S. Forest Service volunteer. He did what he normally did the years before the fire stripped the land of its greenery and animal life: He took pictures. He continued shooting pictures during the following four years and was amazed by the changes he saw — new life springing from the ashes.

“Mountainsides reduced to pure ash and a few burnt branches, trees destroyed … a year later were completely covered with gold poppies, bush lupine; those lupine gone now, replaced with golden yarrow,” Caley described in a recent telephone interview, “I've seen fox, mountain lions, plenty of deer, bear.”

The resilience of nature and the adaptation of its residents continued to astound Caley as he took his weekly rides throughout the seasons.

“Before the fire, I never saw more than a handful of poppies. Afterward, I saw entire hillsides of [them].”

Seeing Caley's photographs of the forest's slow recovery, friends and family urged him to show his work. From his weekly 18-mile round-trip bike rides was born an exhibit, “From the Station Fire Ashes: A Forest Recovers,” now on display at Penelope's Cafe Books & Gallery in La Cañada Flintridge through Oct. 30.

Caley has been taking photographs longer than he's pursued his career as an architect. He bought his first camera right out of high school 40 years ago. With a camera, he said, he “looked at the built environment while looking at nature at the same time.”

His love of nature was instilled in him as a boy camping with his parents, and on Cub Scout trips.

“One reason we moved to La Cañada was so we could be near the mountains, where we could go hiking and biking right out of the house. It's a great privilege,” Caley said. “From the house, I ride every weekend to Mt. Lukens and ride along the ridge. I see the changes every week, what's flowering, what's not. What insects and animals are attracted to those plants and pollinators. Every week I come back, it's just amazing.”

There are more than 100,000 wildfires that burn an average of four to five million acres each year in the U.S., according to “Wildfires: Dry, Hot and Windy,” a National Geographic article. California, with its Santa Ana winds, experiences some of the worst firestorms in the country.

The Station fire was believed to have been caused by arson. While wildfires destroy people's homes and lives in addition to the natural landscape, there is the belief that natural fires are a healthy component of nature.

“They return nutrients to the soil by burning dead or decaying matter,” the National Geographic story stated. “They also act as a disinfectant, removing disease-ridden plants and harmful insects from a forest ecosystem. And by burning through thick canopies and brushy undergrowth, wildfires allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, enabling a new generation of seedlings to grow.”

Caley has joined the California Native Plant Society and the San Gabriel Valley Cactus and Succulent Society to learn more about the plant life he sees on his treks. He noted that there are a number of plants, called fire-followers, that do not reproduce without the effects of fire. The fire causes germination in such species as the fire poppy.

The U.S. Forest Service has attempted to aid nature in its regrowth in the Angeles National Forest. In 2011, the service planted nearly a million fir and pine trees throughout the thousands of burned acres. Most dried up and died within months. Skeptics believe that not enough rain falls to support such regrowth. Furthermore, the ambitious tree-planting goal does not reflect the original pre-2009 landscape of 70% chaparral, 23% forest, and 7% desert or riparian topography.

Caley is hesitant to state any possible positive aspects of fire, but his enthusiasm for the renewal of life he has witnessed clearly defines his passion of photographing nature: “It's the cycle of life and regrowth that keeps me going.”

What: “From the Station Fire Ashes: A Forest Recovers”

Where: Penelope's Cafe Books & Gallery,1029 Foothill Blvd., La Cañada Flintridge.

When: Through Oct. 30.

More info: (818) 790-4386 --

LAURA TATE is a regular contributor to Marquee.

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